Heidegger…ripping off Taoism?

I was reading an excerpt from Heidegger’s 1949 Bremen Lecture Insight into That Which Is and I stumbled across an almost embarrassing intellectual gaffe on his part. In the lecture, he performs a phenomenological reduction on a normal pitcher to illustrate his usual distinction between presence-at-hand and readiness-to-hand. Part of his point is to emphasize that what a pitcher primarily “is” is a container i.e. something useful for containing liquid. Moreover, he says:

When we fill the pitcher, the liquid flows into the empty pitcher. The emptiness is the containing of the container. The emptiness — this nothingness that belongs to the pitcher — is what the pitcher, as a containing container, is…The thingness of the container in no way rests in the material that it is made of, but in the emptiness that contains.

What’s embarrassing for Heidegger is that this is so obviously borrowed from the Tao Te Ching yet he fails to make reference to how Eastern philosophy understood this basic phenomenological point thousands of years ago. See for yourself:


Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;

It is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes which make it useful.

Therefore profit comes from what is there;

Usefulness from what is not there.

While it is certainly possible that Heidegger was simply unaware of such an obvious reference, given Heidegger’s exposure to Eastern philosophy (according to this wikipedia page, citing Tomonubu Imamichi), I find it doubtful that he was simply ignorant about the reference. Was Heidegger then just unwilling to cite his sources?



Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy

8 responses to “Heidegger…ripping off Taoism?

  1. In fact, by that time Heidegger had already attempted and aborted a translation of the Tao Te Ching in 1946. Paul Shih-yi Hsiao’s account of his meeting and collaboration with Heidegger is included in Heidegger and Asian Thought, ed. Graham Parkes, U of Hawaii Press.

    (not sure if my first attempt at leaving this comment was successful as the screen went blank, so if it was you can delete this one)

  2. Gary Williams

    Cool, thanks for the reference! That confirms my theory then that Heidegger was for some reason unwilling to cite his intellectual sources.

  3. Paul Ennis

    Aye, Heidegger is one of the worst people I have ever read with regard to sourcing. There are points where it is obvious (whenever Schelling lurks in the background) and points where if he cited the footnotes would eat the page…imagine SZ if Heidegger had to footnote where he was borrowing from Husserl 😉 I’ve heard it said a great thinker is one who through the abandonment of footnotes gets lots of ideas attributed to them!

  4. socratus

    Lao Tzu and Physics.
    ============== . .
    Dao generates the One,
    The One generates the Two,
    The Two generates the Three.
    The Three generates all things.
    All things have darkness at their back
    and strive towards the light,
    and the flowing power gives them harmony.
    / Tao Te Ching, Chapter 42, Lao Tzu /
    ============= . .

    My comment: / Cosmo genesis. /
    In the beginning was Vacuum/ Dao.
    The Vacuum/ Dao is not died space but according to
    Quantum theory it is Energetic space : T=0K.
    Dao generates the One.
    It means:
    The Energetic (Infinite/Eternal) Vacuum space generates
    energetic virtual particles- frozen light quanta..
    They are in rest/ potential condition and written by formulas:
    C/D = pi, E = Mc^2, R/N = k, h = 0, i^2 = -1.
    They can change its rest/potential condition and become active.
    We call this active Energetic particle Electron: e^2= ahc
    The One generates the Two.
    It means:
    The Ones (frozen light quanta and Electron) create Proton.
    The Two generates the Three.
    It means:
    As result of interaction between Electron and Proton
    the atom was created.
    The Three generates all things.
    It means:
    The atoms create all things.
    All things have darkness at their back
    and strive towards the light,
    and the flowing power gives them harmony.
    It means:
    The Quantum of Light is hidden in everything.
    But as the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ says:
    Fools deride Me when I descend in the human form.
    They do not know My transcendental nature and
    My supreme dominion over all that be.
    / Chapter 9. Text 11./
    ========== . .
    Is God a Scientist ??? !!!

    The masses in the Universe are very few.
    The distances between stars are very far.
    About 99% of the matter in the Universe is unseen.
    Nobody knows what it is.
    But God using his > 99% Hidden mass of the Universe
    take control over the < 1% Visible mass of the Universe.
    He is a smart physicist and mathematician .
    He smiles and laughs when others say:
    ‘ The formulas are cleverer than men’.
    ========== . .
    In my opinion if God exists, He/She/It would necessarily
    to work in an Absolute Reference Frame and had set of
    physical and mathematical laws to create everything
    in the Universe.
    If we find and understand this Absolute God’s House then
    is possible step by step to find and understand God’s Physics
    Laws, which Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Maxwell, Planck,
    Einstein and many others scientists discovered.
    If you don’t like the terminology like ‘ God existing’ then
    I can change my sentence.
    I will say:
    If we find and understand an Absolute Reference Frame in the
    Universe/ Nature then is possible step by step to find and understand
    the sense of all Physics Laws, which Copernicus, Kepler, Newton,
    Maxwell, Planck, Einstein and many others scientists discovered.
    Then we can understand the Physics without paradoxes.
    Best wishes.
    Israel Sadovnik. Socratus.

  5. Peter

    The Tao is everything – it would be redundant to cite it.

  6. He cites Lao-tzu explicitly in the first lecture in the 1957 series, “Grundsaetze des Denkens” (GA 79:93) and, copiously, in the 1957 lecture “Das Wesen der Sprache” (GA 12:187). The “hidden sources” meme is a rather petty way of viewing Heidegger’s encounter with Taoism. Eliot wrote that minor poets borrow, great poets steal. Heidegger always pursues the phenomena, and he does not need to cite literary stimuli that may or may not have helped him see the phenomena (such as Kierkegaard in Sein und Zeit).

  7. Joseph O'Leary

    Eliot’s actual words are worth pondering:

    “One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”

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