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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.

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