Heidegger, Martin

Assigned: Heidegger, Martin. “Language” (914-27). Also read the editors’ introduction (912-13).

“Language” (1950)

1. On 914-15 (“Man speaks. We speak when we are awake…”), Martin Heidegger writes that the expected thing in a lecture or essay of this sort would be “to give an idea of the nature of language and to distinguish this idea properly from other ideas” (914). But what does he go on to say he really wants to do instead because it seems truer to language itself? What reductive move does he want to avoid in this brief meditation on language? How do you interpret his sentences, “We would like only, for once, to get to just where we are already” (914) and “We leave the speaking to language” (915)? In what sense is Heidegger by means of such remarks rejecting traditional ways of circumscribing the purpose and nature of language either as expression or as an instrument that refers to and describes the world around us, etc.?

2. On 915 (“On the tenth of August, 1784, Hamann wrote…”), Heidegger quotes Johann Hamann on the “abyss” that language either is itself or opens up, and then asks us to consider the seeming tautology, “Language is language” (915). What happens, according to Heidegger, if we “let ourselves fall into the abyss denoted by this sentence”? What is the apparent relationship between human beings and language?

3. On 915-16 (“What does it mean to speak…”), Heidegger reflects on what we usually call the “expressive” theory of language. For those who promote that theory, what three points are assumed to be valid? How does the perspective of those who “stress that the word of language is of divine origin” (916) change the overall understanding of language? Furthermore, while Heidegger agrees that the expressive, speech-act, and mimetic views of language (i.e., “language as audible utterance of inner emotions, as human activity, as a representation by image and by concept”) are correct as far as they go, what vital understanding does he suggest the sum total of these perspectives still fails to deliver to us?

4. On 917-18 (“Language speaks. What about its speaking…”), Heidegger writes that we should “seek the speaking of language in what is spoken,” and that to do this, we ought further to search out something that is “spoken purely” (917). This “something” turns out to be a poem. What is Heidegger thereby suggesting about poetry as an instance of language? Heidegger points out that “A Winter Evening” is a masterful poem because “the poem can deny the poet’s person and name” (918). Why should that capacity for anonymity make any difference?

5. 918-19 (“The poem is made up of three stanzas…”), Heidegger offers a brief description and analysis of the poem, “A Winter Evening.” What are the basics of that treatment of the poem? He is also, of course, referring us to the doctrine that language is something we habitually consider to be utterance and, more particularly, expression—expression of some feeling or idea inside of us so that it can be communicated to others: “Language proves incontestably to be expression” (919). Yet, in Heidegger’s view, what is inadequate about this proposition if we really want to understand “the nature of language” (919)?

6. On 919-20 (“Language speaks. This means at the same time…”), Heidegger discusses the first stanza of “A Winter Evening.” What insight does he draw from the first couplet, which begins with “Window with falling snow…” (919)? What “call” does this couplet issue? Why do you suppose it is important to Heidegger to keep reminding us that what is called does not simply become present to anyone (presumably either as real objects or as imagined objects immediately present to the people in the hall where he was at the time lecturing), but rather becomes or remains “a presence sheltered in absence” (920)? As for the second couplet of the first stanza, beginning, “The house is provided…,” how does Heidegger’s analysis of it lead him to the claims that “The first stanza calls things into their thinging, bids them come” and “The first stanza speaks by bidding the things to come” (920)?

7. On 920-22 (“The second stanza speaks…”), Heidegger considers the second stanza of “A Winter Evening.” He writes that the first two lines of the second stanza, beginning with “Wandering ones…,” continue to “name things” as happened in the first stanza, while its second pair of verses (“Golden blooms…”), “expressly name the world” (921). How does he explain the meaning of the term “world” as he is here using it? He also writes that “The speaking of the first two stanzas speaks by bidding things to come to the world, and world to things” (921). A detailed consideration ensues regarding what Heidegger calls “dif-ference,” a term that affirms the division between world and thing. Reflect on the middle paragraph of 922, beginning “The word consequently no longer means…” and the paragraph following it. What interpretations of this key term “dif-ference” does Heidegger apparently want to discourage, and why? By contrast, what understanding of its meaning does he encourage?

8. On 922-24 (“The first stanza of the poem…”), Heidegger explains how the third stanza, beginning with “Wanderer quietly steps…,” continues the poem’s way of “calling” in that, as he puts it, it “bids the middle for world and things to come” (922). He makes much of the second verse, “Pain has turned the threshold to stone” (923). How does he interpret the significance of this line in connection to what he has been calling “the dif-ference”? As for the “bread and wine” of the final two lines in the third stanza, what value does Heidegger suggest the poem as language has led us to discern in them? What significance do they have in the world that is “called” or “bidden” in the poem, and what might they mean to the Wanderer who steps into the dwelling and beholds them? (923-24)

9. On 924-25 (“Such stilling, however, takes place…”), Heidegger refers in this enigmatic segment to Language as “the peal of stillness,” and he also writes that “the very nature, the presencing, of language needs and uses the speaking of mortals in order to sound as the peal of stillness for the hearing of mortals” (925). He has made it clear throughout that he is not working from an instrumental or expressive notion of language, one that would make human desires and ideation central to his analysis of “language.” How, then, does this segment nevertheless address the manner in which actual human utterances fit into that analysis? In what sense does “language” require human utterances in order to do what Heidegger says it does?

10. On 925-27 (“Mortal speech is a calling that names…”), to conclude his essay, Heidegger continues his thinking-through of “mortal speech” in its relation to what he has been saying about “language.” One of the key remarks he makes on these pages is, “Mortals speak insofar as they listen. They heed the bidding call of the stillness of the dif-ference even when they do not know that call” (926). Humans’ most legitimate mode of speaking Heidegger characterizes as “responding”: “Man speaks in that he responds to language” (926). How do you interpret his meaning in casting our speaking as a form of responding to the call of language? To respond, consider the entirety of the pages in question, 925 middle-927.

11. General question: In his 1950 essay “Language” (“Die Sprache,” originally a lecture), Martin Heidegger explores language in a way that avoids the expressive and representational (i.e., “mimetic”) views of language, however useful he acknowledges these may be to us if we are content in not seeking to know what language is at its deepest level of significance, its way of revealing Being, perhaps its status as Being. Heidegger himself clearly does not view language as a mere tool in the toolkit of humanity, an instrument with which we can get things done and make things known. After reading his essay, what understanding of the true nature of language do you take away from it? If language isn’t solely a way to express ourselves or point to things or communicate ideas to one another, but is something much more valuable and constitutive than that, what “something” is it, if we may put the question so bluntly?

12. General question: You have no doubt spent a fair amount of time puzzling over Martin Heidegger’s complex, nuanced exploration in his 1950 essay “Language” of the deepest dimension of language, or “Sprache,” as it’s called in German. Now take some time to reflect on your own conceptions and most abiding thoughts about the importance of language to you, personally. What do you find most valuable about your own experiences with language, and why so? What do you find most frustrating or troubling about your experiences with language, and why so?

13. General question: Any text by Martin Heidegger recommends itself to us with much the same complexity that we have encountered in “Language,” or as the German title runs, “Die Sprache.” Being and Time (Sein und Zeit) and indeed all of Heidegger’s works “read” the same difficult way. Most students in college courses are encountering this difficult material for the first time. One never fully understands any sophisticated piece of writing upon a first or second reading. (Students often find this fact hard to accept, and they tend to suppose that a person either knows everything about a given text or field, or nothing. Try not to make that assumption! Although it is admirably humble, it is false, and it causes unnecessary anxiety.) Heideggerian prose is difficult and enigmatic even for Continental philosophy. What, then, is your approach to grappling with this material, which seems so insightful and yet so often situates its meanings maddeningly beyond our reach? How would you characterize Heidegger’s “style” and methodology as a writer, and what do you find to be the most constructive way to approach it and gain what insight you can from it—something of value to your own progress as an intellectual?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake