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The Language Thing (Or: Heidegger Made Dense)

I’ve been a bad bad boy. It’s been a busy few weeks and I haven’t kept up with the blogiverse as closely as I’d like. So I’m late in coming to the quite wonderful thread on “language determinism” started by Stavros the Wonder Chicken with a brilliant post that uses Korean as an example to shake up our assumptions about whether we speak language or language speaks us.

Among many others who responded was Jonathon Delacour who cites Heidegger saying Language is the house of Being.” (The “language speaks us” trope is also Heidegger’s.) Jonathon writes:

Heidegger seems to be suggesting a far more active role in the construction of language (and therefore) culture for those who think (philosophers?) and those who create (writers and poets?). Hopefully, a fully-fledged philosopher will clarify Heidegger?s intention.

Clarify Heidegger’s intention? Hahahaha, that’s a good one! But, since my doctoral dissertation was on Heidegger, I’m going to take a swing at this one anyway. Since it’s been 20 years since I read the ol’ Nazi, this will be more what-I-think-I-learned-from-Heidegger about language than a scholarly exegesis of his thought.

At bottom, here’s why Heidegger mattered to me. I was a freshman in college. I was in the midst of what we used to call an “existential crisis.” It seemed obvious to me that the meaning we saw in the world was merely what we project onto it. And we’re not talking about Capital M Meanings like “Love thy neighbor” or “Go forth and multiply.” No, it was more along the lines of: we only see a difference between a tree’s roots and the ground that they’re in; the world doesn’t really divide up the way we think it does. (Ah, peyote! I miss it still!)

By learning about the history of philosopy, I learned that this line of thought, which seemed so obvious and incontrovertible, in fact had a history: I was thinking that way because 2,500 years of overly-intellectual white guys worked themselves into a corner. (A surprising percentage of the great white philosophers died virgins. ‘Nuff sed.)

By learning about phenomenology in general, I learned that the sundering of meaning and reality was in fact a special mood to which we moderns are susceptible, and that that mood does not have special revelatory power. That is, when Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea sees the tree’s roots as alien and meaningless, that is not a revelation of the truth of the tree but a projection of 2,500 years of twisted philosophical thought.

Third — and now we’re getting closer to Heidegger on language — I learned from Heidegger that things always present themselves to us as something: the apple tree shows itself as an apple tree, the hammer as a hammer. Further, things show themselves within a project: eating an apple, harvesting apples, getting an apple to throw at postal worker, etc. The idea of a thing-in-itself makes as much sense as what yellow looks like when the lights are off.

Fourth, I came to accept that the interesting and important phenomenon to explain is the ordinary experience of our world in which what is shows itself as something. The notion of Reality as that which stands apart from human experience comes about only in two highly suspect ways: In the mood of despair and in the overly-rational, abstract contemplations of philosophers.

Heidegger’s Big Point about language, at least as it affected me, is that it is not a medium of communication. It first and foremost the “as”-ness of our experience. When we speak together, we are not shipping meanings from one mind to another. We are instead turning towards the world together, letting the world reveal itself in its as-ness.

Further, language is a “gesture.” Heidegger doesn’t do a great job laying this out (perhaps because he offers the gesture idea as a gesture), but I find the idea deeply appealing for two reasons.

First, the existing theory of language said that good language is precise. Nah, says the gesture idea. Good language is ambiguous because it’s contextual. The “as-ness” of a thing is, Heidegger writes in Being and Time, totally contextual: a hammer can’t be a hammer (for driving nails) without a context that includes nails, lumber, trees, humans as builders, humans as needers of shelter, etc. Words are also contextual; language is not a one-to-one relationship of grunt to thing.

Second, the current theory said that language is about A getting an internal idea out of his head and into B’s head. The gesture idea says that language is about A revealing the world in a particular way to B. Language is a way we turn towards the world together, not a way we replicate inner states.

So: Language is the house of Being because language fundamentally is the as-ness of the world, and to be is to be as something.

Now, in response to the blogthread. Heidegger has a heroic view of the development of language. He believes that poets are the real philosophers because poets shape language and thus shape being (the way the world presents itself to us). He doesn’t want to say that poets make stuff up, so he instead has an idea of Being unfolding itself in history. Shades of Hegel, but perhaps motivated by his need to shore up Nazism as not just a great idea for a political party but as a destiny of the German people. You can’t have a destiny unless history is unfolding.

So, let’s leave aside the question of how the history of language develops. On a smaller scale, Heidegger certainly thinks that language isn’t merely how we experience the world, for he rejects the idea that we start out with two poles: the world and our perception. No, for him the world is what shows itself to us, and it shows itself to us in the as-ness of language. Language is the house of being. It’s also the floorplan of being, and the wallpaper and matching sofa of being.

Believe it or not, I am trying to be clear.

22 Responses to “The Language Thing (Or: Heidegger Made Dense)”

  1. I believe you! As unphilosophical as I am, I followed the argument and found it remarkably clear. And intriguing.

  2. I believe you! As unphilosophical as I am, I followed the argument and found it remarkably clear. And intriguing.

  3. I believe you! As unphilosophical as I am, I followed the argument and found it remarkably clear. And intriguing.

  4. Language and World Views

    Some people are having a discussion about whether and how language shapes how we experience the world. Stavros the Wonder Chicken has a very long post examining different academic models, and using Korean as an example. And David Weinberger has an exce…

  5. Great stuff David – it’s why so much KM stuff is bollocks!

  6. Hey, don’t harass us KM’s.
    Is this what the ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators’ trope was about?

  7. Amawifi

    Margaret and I have established the pattern of spending alternating days at local coffee shops (rather than home or office, each of which presents distinct temptations and interruptions incompatible with productive brain work). She goes to Peets, where…

  8. The impoverishment of language

    In 1972, after teaching science in a private high school for a couple of years, I wangled a job as a chemistry teacher in the state technical education system (TAFE)– far more congenial since the students were older and more highly motivated. Better s…

  9. Linguistic imperialism?

    In 1972, after teaching science in a private high school for a couple of years, I wangled a job as a chemistry teacher in the state technical education system (TAFE), which was a far more congenial environment since the students were older and highly m…

  10. When we realize that the 1939 Nazis were well versed in Rosicrucianism (as were the 1958 Rastafaris) then the appearance of this notion of gesture becomes not so revolutionary and alien, but an outgrowth of the double-edged sword of language in the opaque gestural language of the Golden Dawn and other men’s clubs. (cf Rastafari “word sound power” the basis of their ‘strange’ but deeply deliberate patois)

    These are not new ideas; these are very old ideas which, like the church-guarded Cipher (ie zero), were kept secret because they held ‘power’ over others in debate.

    It is only because of the “most dangerous man in Europe” (what Mussilini called Aleister Crowley upon banning him) that these ideas became public (opensource) IMHO leading to a blossoming of philosophy in the 20th century (much of it, if you ask me, misguided because the authors and audience lacked the common cultural frames of shared reference, gesturing in the dark, they sounded like poets and madmen) and thus we get a strange perversion of “Do what thou wilst is the whole of the law” into the New Age, “Perception is the reality” where the thing being gestured is thought maleable.

    To the Rosicrucians, however, Jacob’s Stone (was it Jacob’s?) was not maleable, it was just indescribable in anything more than vain gestures, but definate and very real, being as it was, descended (eminated) from first principles (ie according to the the Talmud, Torah, Kabala and Tarot).

    Right or wrong, however, Aliester Crowley very likely did not die a virgin ;)

  11. David, you’ve just come up with the title and topic for your talk at the DGI conference: Blogging is the House of Being! However, I do take issue with a major point in this blog. Although I am not an expert in these matters, my understanding is that peyote typically inclines one to Max Scheler. I do agree, incidentally, that Heidegger’s pre-turn work is essentially nothing by the Talmud read through the lens of Bob Marley, Aleister Crowley, Madame Blavatsky, and two pints of grain alcohol ;)

  12. I don’t think Heidedegger was a Rosicrucian. He was, however, a member of the Knights Templar and was responsible for rescuing The Orb of the Crucifix from the evil hands of Dr. Hans Moravic. At least according to what he told the lithesome but feisty Hannah Arendt.

  13. Thanks for this, David. I’ve gesticulated toward an ottoman of being on mein blog.

  14. While I haven’t read Heidegger, your exposition sounds remarkably familiar with the language debate that raged among literary scholars in England in the first half of the last century. Early literary critics maintained that words had very specific meanings and usages, and the “right” word was the one that had the “right” meaning. Led by the likes of literary critic Ivor Armstrong Richards at Cambridge, our modern notion of words’ meanings being established by context and usage was formed. As Richards and some of his colleagues and students rejoiced in lingusitic ambiguity, we were blessed with poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and most assuredly, James Joyce, whose Finnegan’s Wake is a masterpiece of obscurity, ambiguity and word play.

    The right word for a purpose is not the one that conveys the right meaning, but the one that conveys the right effect. This, of course, ties directly to the idea of “house of being” and the “as-ness” of situations. After all, what’s a meta-phor?

  15. Of course, media studies folks know that most of this dialectical verbiage is totally moot. Language is THE medium, the ubermedium in which the primary media in culture encode themselves. When McLuhan said “The medium is the message” after Harols Innis before him said “the medium is the culture”…verb sap; ibid.; QED. No more is really needed, nor warranted, than that to make the point that this “big discussion” seems to be wandering around.

  16. Hey I really enjoyed this entry… I’m not knowledgeable about Heigegger at all but it got me thinking a lot. I ended up responding to what you write in my blog entry today if you’d like to read it:

  17. I was carousing the web when I stumbled upon this thread. I am afraid that D. Weinberger is not an educated source on the topic of Heidegger. When he speaks of Heidegger as an existentialist or as a Nazi it is obvious that Weinberger has never informed himself about Heidegger or his philosophy.
    The information that Weinberger presents is falsely referenced as stemming from Being and Time; yet, Heidegger only begins to struggle with language as being during the later part of his life. All of these texts were written after the National Socialist years, and had nothing even remotely to do with National Socialism. Weinberger has taken destining out of its context.
    Anyhow, it was an interesting read, but it only marginally reflects Heideggers work. I apologize that I have not been able to formulate a complete critique of Weinburger’s text.
    Read: On the Way to Language, The Nature of Language

  18. Desmond, I may well be wrong, but I am definitely not uneducated on this topic. My doctoral dissertation was on Heidegger, focusing on his post-Kehre writing.

    Why you think H’s later writings are uninfluenced by Nazism simply because they were written after WWII ended is mysterious. Your position would be easier to understand had H ever renounced Nazism.

  19. In response to Desmond: Take a long hard look at Heidegger’s attention to Holderlin’s poetry, as well as his rectoral addresses of 1933-34 if you think Heidegger wasn’t intensely focused on the problem of language from day one. There will be a world of difference in your reading of Being and Time afterwards, as it appears you are under the impression this text doesn’t give serious and lengthy consideration to the problem of language. Also, to aid, Frank Elder’s article in Social Research (v57 #1, 1990) entitled “Heidegger’s Attempt to Steal the Language of the Revolution in 1933-34” is a good place to start. That article was referenced a number of places, from Leslie Paul Thiele’s ’95 book, to Guignon’s Introduction in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. You can also read quite a bit of Heidegger’s problem of language in a great deal of Richard Rorty’s work (see Contingency, Irony, Solidarity; also the last essay in the Guignon book) where he references Being and Time quite a few times in the language discussion.

    It is true that in On the Way to Language Heidegger will describe his earlier phrase “Language is the house of being” as “clumsy,” to not see the problem in germ throughout Being and Time is to miss a great deal of what Heidegger is trying to demonstrate there.

    Of course, that’s just a reading, but one with some collaborating evidence. I’ll stop throwing references, but I think Weinberger is on the right track with this one.

  20. language, action and power

    I’ve posted previously about literacy and language. I’m fascinated with the mystery of language, particularly as we use it in the context of the Internet. I want to better understand the differences in language use between fact-to-face and …

  21. cooooooooooooooooool

  22. Desmond writes: “Heidegger only begins to struggle with language as being during the later part of his life.”

    However, in Heidegger’s “Dialogue on Language”, we see the following.

    Japanese: Still, it seems ot me that the fundamental theme, “Language and Being”, stayed there in the background.
    Inquirer (Heidegger): It did stay there even in the course you mentioned, of 1921.

    Fairly conclusive, I think.

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