Giving Thanks: Heidegger’s Pathway into Thinking
“It is said that the dancer’s hardest task is to leap straight into the pose” (Søren Kierkegaard)
“We are a sign that is not read, We feel no pain, we almost have Lost our tongues in foreign lands” (Friedrich Hölderlin)
Martin Heidegger’s “Was Heißt Denken” has been called, perhaps with no small amount of irony, “the only systematic presentation of the thinker’s late philosophy” (Arendt). The book, however, defies systematization before it even begins, the title itself rings out in ambiguity, it is usually translated as “What is Called Thinking”, but could just as easily be translated as what calls for thinking, what has been called thinking, or what is called for in order to think rightly. Heidegger asks his reader to stay with the ambiguity of the question in the title, which “can never be answered by proposing a definition of the concept thinking, and then diligently explaining what is contained in that definition.” Instead, he wants to lead us to where we can make the leap ourselves into thinking. He likens this to learning to swim, which we may be able to get an idea of from a book, but “only the leap into the river tells us what is called swimming.” Heidegger’s “Was Heißt Denken” seeks to lead its reader to the cliff where she can jump into the current of thinking and thereby learn to swim, that is, to think.
Heidegger sets out to establish a pathway to the region where we can ourselves make the leap into Thinking. This pathway takes us through language in a very peculiar way; Heidegger does not provide us with definitions of terms, in fact, he warns us that definitional thinking conceals Thinking. Definitional thinking treats words as the conjunction of “sound-structure and sense-content”, words are just the containers of meaning, “mere kegs and buckets”. Instead of providing definitions and proceeding from these abstractions, Heidegger simply uses language. He repeats a word again and again, in slightly different contexts with slight variations of meaning. This circling gathers the multiple meanings of a word without privileging one meaning over another, the meanings of a word are gathered together in ambiguity. This ambiguity is characteristic of the pathway to Thinking, words standing in a multiplicity of meanings are signposts pointing us on our way.
Heidegger refuses to come out and tell us what it means, in any definite sense, to Think. He does, on the other hand, supply us with plenty of examples of what Thinking is not, but that we may think that Thinking is, because thinking has been thought of in various ways throughout history. Rational thought, representational thought, dialogical thought, and all this thought amounts to what Heidegger calls “ratio about ratio”; which means quite simply, that we may call our thinking “thinking”, but, we do not know what it is to Think. If we want to understand what it is to Think, with a capital T, and not merely with the lower case t, as this difference is usually represented in Heidegger scholarship, then we need to go backwards into history and look at the formation of thinking about Thinking.
One of the ways that thinking has been analyzed throughout history is as the formation of representational ideas. This is what happens when we stand before a tree in bloom and form in our heads an image of the tree; where, we can ask, is this tree? Heidegger asks, “does the tree stand ‘in our consciousness’, or does it stand on the meadow? Does the meadow lie in our soul, as experience, or is it spread out there on earth? Is the earth in our head? or do we stand on the earth?” The progress of science only furthers this conundrum by stating “what we see and accept is properly not a tree but in reality a void, thinly sprinkled with electrical charges … that race hither and yon at enormous speeds”. Science tells us, it seems, that the tree is not really out there, that the tree we see is already a created representation, formed by light bouncing off of a sparse collection of particles floating within a void, sparking a chain reaction that leads from eyes to brain to the formation of the tree as a mere appearance of a tree. Our actual face to face encounter with a tree in bloom is but a prescientific naivety, “something that we still happen to call ‘tree’ … and to drop the tree in bloom”.
The forming of representational ideas was elevated to the highest form of thinking by Plato. The representational idea that appears in ones mind is compared with the universal idea, the eternal essence of the thing as the specific thing that it is. Introductory Philosophy courses often resort to questions about chairs, what exactly about this particular chair makes it an instance of “chairness”, and Plato’s answer is that the actual chair is but an imperfect instantiation of the Ideal Chair. Plato establishes a duality between the chair that appears, the physical chair, and the metaphysical Chair through which all chairs receive their chairness by participating in the ideal Chair. Thinking, for Plato, does not deal with the actual physical chair in front of us, the truth of the chair does not reside there, but somewhere else, somewhere eternal and unchanging.
This is the demand that rational thought places upon an encounter with a tree, we let the thing be determined from out of the mode of eternalized essences, whether we appeal to a dictionary definition of a tree or think that the essence of matter is atoms and molecules and forces at play. There is the appearance of the tree and there is what the tree really is, behind the appearance. We would no less be losing the actual appearance of the tree if we were to examine the concept of a tree for its essential characteristics. Thinking is different from rational thought and representational ideation in that “when … a tree in bloom presents itself to us so that we can come and stand face-to-face with it … first and foremost … is not to drop the tree in bloom but for once to let it stand where it stands … thought has never let the tree stand where it stands.”
The actual tree in bloom that stands before us withdraws from rational thought, and is quickly replaced by conceptual and ideational representations of a tree. Heidegger proposes a radical solution to this problem, instead of analyzing and defining the tree, we simply curl up our hand, extend one finger and use it to point towards the tree. This pointing action of the hand underlies all language and all possibilities for Thinking, and not only pointing; “the hand’s gestures run everywhere through language.”
“The hand reaches and extends, receives and welcomes — and not just things; the hand extends itself, and receives its own welcome in the hands of others. The hand holds. The hand carries. The hand designs and signs”.
Thinking, Heidegger tells us, is handicraft, the thinker is a craftsman. Heidegger’s paradigmatic craftsman is the woodworker, who reveals the shapes slumbering within the wood. Just as, according to legend, Michelangelo saw David slumbering within a block of marble and he simply removed everything that was not David. In a craft, the hands are used to form material into an object; before the days of mechanization, the craftsman had to pay attention to what is present in the material, one did not force a shape to appear where the grain of wood or marble did not already prepare the way. Handicraft responds to what is present, but hidden from unskilled hands and eyes.
When we point to the tree in bloom we begin to engage in the handicraft of Thinking, pointing towards what remains hidden from unskilled eyes and hands. The Thinker is engaged in pointing towards this hidden aspect of the tree in bloom that returns us to the presence of the actual tree, apart from conceptualization and representational ideation, apart from the practical reason that presents the tree as material for a possible project. The Thinker must unlearn these ways of making the tree appear, in order to really let the tree appear.
What a representational idea allows us to do is to recall the tree in our minds. This recalling is to remember. But, when we remember the tree we lose sight of what we indicate when we point at the tree that stands before us. What withdraws from us in this representation is what Heidegger calls the most thought provoking thing, what is most thought provoking is what calls on us to think. Further, it is precisely in this withdrawal that the most thought provoking thing calls to us to be thought. As we point towards what withdraws we are drawn into its withdrawal, just as retreating waves point back towards the receding tide. The withdrawing tide gathers the waves into itself, and these waves are inclined towards the tide. The gathering and the pointing result in a mutual inclination. What calls on us to be thought shares this mutual inclination as it gathers us within its call.
If the representation is a kind of recall, Heidegger asks us to look behind this remembrance to the originary memory from which this proceeds. Originally, he claims, memory was not limited only to remembrance of what has passed, but referred rather to “the whole disposition, in the sense of a steadfast intimate concentration … a constant concentrated abiding with something … What is past, present and to come appears in the oneness of its own present being.”
To explain this Heidegger appeals to the etymological connection between thinking and thanking, which in Old English were both thanc, a grateful thought. To give thanks means more than the mere performative utterance of saying thank you, or the giving of a gift as a way of saying thank you. Heidegger would deny that saying thank you is merely the expression of thanking; but, even conceived as expression this expression points back to an inner state which can be pressed outward. “Pure thanks is rather that we simply think — think what is really and solely given, what is there to be thought.” To give thanks one must first be thankful, that is to say, filled with gratitude.
Heidegger warns us against conceiving of thanking as a subject giving thanks for an object, which implies “a project and a base, an oppositeness.” Instead, gathering annuls differentiation into oneness. A wedding can be such a gathering where the dearly beloved are gathered together to witness the creation of a union between two lives. This kind of gathering is not “an after-the-fact collection of what basically exists, but the tidings that take over all of our doings.” The wedding guests are not an ancillary aspect of the wedding ceremony, but are friends and family that comprise the past, present and future of the lives to be joined.
Human beings can be given over to this kind of gathering because “we ourselves are this gathering.” Human beings are the kind of being whose nature is expressed in gathering — both in the gathering together of individuals in a family or community, and in the gathering together of thought and memory. Memory, fundamentally, is the gathering together of what calls out to be thought; “thought is in need of memory, the gathering of thought.”
“The thanc means man’s inmost mind, the heart, the heart’s core, that inmost essence of man which reaches outward most fully and to the outermost limits, and so decisively that, rightly considered, the idea of an inner and outer world does not arise … in giving thanks, the heart in thought recalls where it remains gathered and concentrated, because that is where it belongs.”
Another example of this thankful gathering is the U.S. holiday Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is essentially a harvest festival. A harvest is the gathering of what is, and, not only is ripened food gathered, but also the earth from which it grew, the sky from which rain falls and the sun shines. We mortals gather around the cornucopia of nature, and traditionally, we say a prayer and invite the gods too to gather with us. Before this nexus of earth and sky, mortals and gods, we ask what has become a banal question, and we give banal answers. What are you thankful for this year, Timmy? We sit, and squirm, and try to think of some thing that we are thankful for. Our thinking itself is not thankful in Heidegger’s sense, if it were we would be overwhelmed, fully taken over and given into a thought, our hearts would overflow with the thankfulness. What is there to be that thankful for? As long as we are looking for some thing to be thankful for we will never achieve the kind of total being thankful that Heidegger encourages. Instead we must gather our entire being, our past, our present, and our future, which our family makes present as it gathers with us at the same time every year. And the thought that we think when we have gathered our whole being in thankfulness, what does this look like? It looks like a finger pointing to what there is to be thankful for.
Why does the etymological connection between thinking and thanking matter? After all, the history of thinking dates much farther back than the use of Old English and Old High German, in fact, the history of thinking goes back to Ancient Greece and to Rome, for Heidegger, something very decisive happened when Greek thinking about Thinking became translated into Latin.
The history of thinking about Thinking bears the name logic. “Logic … considers thinking to be the assertion of something about something … [and it considers that] such speech is the basic characteristic of thinking.” Logic demands a certain kind of compatibility between a subject and a predicate. Heidegger uses the example of a triangle and laughter, both of which bring to mind, by virtue of their definition, an incompatibility such that it is illogical to say “the triangle is laughing.” This incompatibility results in contradiction, which logic forbids. Logic also proceeds from out of the fixed definition of things as provided by a dictionary, or technical manual.
Logic arrives in modern speech as the end result of a translation and the appropriation of the concept of logos. Logos, is in turn, the noun form of legein. Logos is usually translated simply as thinking, legein as saying or to say; this however ignores something originary in Greek Thinking. Legein also means to lay, to lay out, to lay before, and is the root word for modern English lay, via legere from Latin. Legein is a saying that lays out what is, logos is what the saying lays before, logos is what the proposition means. To find out what the proposition means the logos must itself be reflected upon with another saying; it is in this manner, for Heidegger, that dialogical thinking arises. As dialectic the “proposition proceeds back and forth for itself within its own domain.” Through dialectic even that which escapes logic is apprehended by logic as illogical, no longer logical or metalogical. But, it is important that for Heidegger, the original dialectic still thought of itself as a laying out in words what was there to be so laid out before, and not as a logical procedure for checking the compatibility of certain statements according to the definitions of the subject and the predicate of a sentence.
According to Heidegger, the Ancient Greeks did not conceive of their statements as the agreement of subject and predicate, rather, a sentence was structured through participation in the hypokeimenon; that which underlies the possibility of anything being said at all. Hypokeimenon became translated into latin as subjectum, and comes to us as subject. Subject is continuous with the hypokeimenon in that the subject is what underlies the sentence, the subject is what the sentence is about; but, these terms are discontinuous when we think of ourselves as subjects experiencing objects to which we can attach predicates, and thereby create meaningful propositions.
Instead of a duality between inner subjectivity and outer objectivity the Ancient Greeks believed that thinking happened within the noein. Noein can be translated as heart, as mind, as spirit, or as thinking, depending on the context in which it is used. Heidegger asks us to keep all of these meanings in mind, and noien broadly means that which perceives, the act of perceiving, and the location of perception. “‘Perceive’ … means the same as receive. In noein, what is perceived concerns us in such a way that we take it up … We take it to heart … left to be exactly as it is.” This is “the minding that has something in mind and takes it to heart.” Noein can receive in this way because it is not separate from the hypokeimenon, what lays under is what is perceived, and can then be laid out in speech exactly as it is because noein does not represent what is in the hypokeimenon to itself: the hypokeimenon is immediately present to the noien.
The possibility, which underlies all saying, for being said in a taking to heart is Being. Every sentence refers, either implicitly or explicitly to Being. As we attach predicates to an object, we say that the object is, in some way, it is participating in Being. If we gather together the legein, the logos, the noien and the hypokeimenon, we arrive back in the vicinity of the thanc, the grateful thought. We take what is before us to heart in a saying that lets it lay as it is. Roman thought, following certain trains of thought in Plato, translates logos into logic and ratio, which instead of letting lie before defines what can be from out of the mode of non-contradiction, logic and ratio treats what is as the instantiation of eternal essences, dividing the appearance of a thing from the non-appearing truth of the thing: dividing beings from their Being and creating a metaphysics of dualism.
Rational thought takes over the legein of logos as a defining dialectic, and in so doing thinks of Being as the duality of Being and beings, Plato thought of this duality as a matter of participation, through the ideas. What appears on its own is defined as physis, and what does not appear on its own is beyond physis, it is metaphysical. “According to Plato the idea constitutes the Being of a being. The idea is the face whereby a given something shows its form, looks at us, and thus appears.” Beings are in Being only by virtue of their participation in the eternalized essences that are the ideal forms.
Plato’s allegory of the cave perfectly illustrates this metaphysical separation. The allegory begins in a cave, where prisoners are chained to their chairs and are shown pictures upon a wall. Plato likens these pictures to the appearance of the world. Then one prisoner is forced to stand up, turn around and see where the pictures come from, he sees that the pictures are created by moving wooden figures before a fire, the appearances are mere shadows. This is the point of view of the scientist, the one who examines the causes of the appearances in the world. Our prisoner is forced out of the cave into the blinding light of the sun, and as his eyes slowly adjust to the light he is able to look to the shadows of trees, to reflections in the water, to the tree itself (or, what is left of it) and finally to the light of the sun itself, which in the allegory represents Being itself. This for Plato is the point of view of the philosopher. After casting his eyes on the blinding light of Being, the prisoner is dragged back into the cave, chained back into his chair and asked once more to cast his gaze on what he now knows to be merely shadows upon a wall. The cave, Plato tells us, is the world, and elsewhere is Being. Therefore, the world is not in Being; only through a withdrawal into the thinking activity does Being become manifest, does Being come to be.
For Heidegger, however, beings have their being in Being, and Being is the Being of beings; there is no duality in the physical/metaphysical sense. We point to the tree in bloom and simultaneously we point to its Being. The Being of beings is right here on the earth, but more importantly the Being of beings is right now. Heidegger’s often used phrase the Being of beings is practically2placeholder synonymous with the Presence of the present. Why then does the presence of what is withdraw from us, and why does Plato think that we have to withdraw in order to come face to face with Being?
Hannah Arendt answers this very question in a chapter of “The Life of the Mind” titled “Where Are We When We Think?” with a parable from Kafka and a riddle from Nietzsche. Zarathustra arrives at a gateway:
“Two paths meet here; no one has yet followed either to its end. This long lane stretches back for an eternity. And the other long lane out there, that is another eternity. They contradict each other, these roads; they offend each other face to face — and it is here, at this gateway, that they come together. The name of the gateway is inscribed above: ‘Now’”
Kafka describes a similar experience in a collection of aphorism titled “He”:
“He has two antagonists; the first presses him from behind, from his origin. The second blocks the road in front of him. He gives battle to both. Actually, the first supports him in his fight with the second, for he wants to push him forward, and in the same way the second supports him in his fight with the first, since he drives him back… His dream, though, is that some time in an unguarded moment — and this, it must be admitted, would require a night darker than any night has ever been yet — he will jump out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience in fighting, to the position of umpire over his antagonists in their fight with each other”
Arendt states that what both of these passages describe is a specific kind of orientation towards time, it is not what one might think of as an ordinary experience of time, “where the three tenses smoothly follow each other and time itself can be understood in analogy to numerical sequences, fixed by the calendar.” However, even there, the infinity of past and future surrounds a human being. The difference between our ordinary experience of time and that presented in the parable and the riddle, is that when we go about our daily business we rush from a past which is no more into a future which is not yet, the present moment is only the brief interlude between the transition from not yet into a no more. It takes a certain kind of reflection in order to step outside of the rush and establish a present moment, this kind of reflection is precisely what Heidegger calls Thinking.
Just as the hands of a clock, Thinking points to the now. Standing in this now we withdraw from our ordinary experience of time, and as soon as the thinking activity is at an end we find ourselves back in the coming and going of past and future, and the now moment withdraws from us again. The Thinking that gathers what is in the inmost heart of one’s being in a saying that lays it before oneself as it is establishes a person’s orientation towards Being; towards the presence of what is present, towards the unique temporal experience of a genuine Now. Infinity before us, infinity after us, and standing here, now, the tree in bloom, a being in Being.
There is an important difference between Kafka’s parable and Nietzsche’s riddle and this difference is a difference of location, and of point of view. Kafka wants us to leap entirely out of the fighting line and into the position of umpire. Nietzsche wants us to stand within a doorway surrounded by eternity. Heidegger passes through a rift in Nietzsche’s thought on his way to Thinking: All this and more when you tune in next time for Nietzsche’s Rift: Heidegger’s Pathway into Thinking part two.
Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking, translated by J. Glenn Gray, HarperPerrenial, 2004.
Gray follows Heidegger’s lead and leaves the ancient Greek words in their original lettering, instead, I rendered these terms into the English pronunciations, even where they appear as a quotation, for the ease of the reader who may not be familiar with Ancient Greek lettering.
Heidegger of course was concerned with the origin of the German word denken, it is only incidental that this same etymology is reflected in English which the translator chose to focus on in the English translation.
The biggest difference between Being and Presence is the fact that Being is a participle, both a noun and a verb. Presencing, or even Presenting, of the present would be closer as it becomes like a participle by joining the verb form and the noun form. But, all of these phrases remain only practically synonymous by not having the conjunction of two participles, as does the phrase the Being of beings.