Wednesday 1 July 2009

Heidegger and Language

Language was one of Martin Heidegger's central preoccupations. In A Dialogue on Language he wrote "Language is the house of being. Man dwells in this house...In language there occurs the revelation of beings...In the power of language man becomes the witness of Being." Being or Dasein-the central concept in his ontology-is revealed through language.

He also spends time discussing the vacuity of ever-day language, where words lose meaning through overuse. One only has to consider here the use of 'love' in relation to all kinds of experience and tastes, so much so that the original intensity of meaning has been sucked dry. Heidegger says that the key to self-understand is to rediscover the original link between the word and the experience, when, as he puts it, 'Being first spoke' in words like 'peace', 'love', 'truth' and 'compassion'.

It is in the area of the Language of Being, in Heidegger’s own philosophical vocabulary, that his thinking tends to become particularly opaque. His use of all sorts of obsolete and compound expressions makes the English translation of his work problematic, particularly that which he wrote after Being and Time. It's only for the most determined of Beings in the world! :-))


  1. One night, during my wild and wayward teenage years, I drank a litre bottle of Southern Comfort, then my favourite alcoholic drink. When I awoke the next morning I felt - to use that expression of extreme understatement of which the Australians are so fond - "pretty ordinary", and discovered that overnight I had turned a shade of jaundice yellow. For more than a year afterwards I had only to imagine the taste or smell of that liqueur and I would physically retch. Other unfortunate youthful predilections have left me with a similarly strong and abiding aversion, among which can be numbered my early interest in phenomenology and existentialism.

    Despite their pretentious claims and high-sounding language, I have never derived a single insight of value from these philosophies. Perhaps, as has sometimes been pointed out to me, this is more my fault than theirs. Or perhaps some of the difficulty lies in the translation of what are, by any standards, highly abstruse thoughts. But I still can't help feeling that Heidegger and his followers have, like the schoolmen of old, in some significant way abandoned the search for truth, and are simply in the business of manufacturing "subtle and intricate axioms and theorems" to sustain their own inward-looking and obscurantist systems. Life is too short and too precious to waste pondering platitudinous or inane pronoucements on the non-subject of "Being", or making fruitless forays into labyrinths of self-referential jargon, in the vain hope that it will all suddenly make sense. It won't. I therefore say with Wittgenstein, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

    There is no shortage of good books on the subject of language. William Empson wrote two brilliant studies of aspects of the English language, 'Seven Types of Ambiguity' and 'Structures of Complex Words'. (You may already know that he also wrote some good essays on Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, particularly John Donne.) For more general philosophical insights into the workings of language, Wittgenstein's 'Philosophical Investigations' is very useful. It takes a completely different approach to his 'Tractatus' (which I think you've read). It is short, avoids jargon, and there is also a very good introductory text written by Marie McGinn (in the Routledge Philosophy Guidebook series). Of course, there is an extensive literature on the philosophy of language in the Anglophone tradition; some of it is quite technical, but it won't normally waste time pondering what "Being first spoke".

    The moral of this post? Well, since I seem to be in the business of proferring unsolicited avuncular advice this evening, my advice is - if somebody writes like a geek, a nerd or a mountebank, then that is what they most probably are, and you should shun them like the plague. Oh yes, and never drink a litre of Southern Comfort ...

  2. I promise I won't! You must have a constitution of iron, Allectus. :-) Thanks for another brilliant contribution.