Recovering things

It has been much discussed how Heidegger had a penchant from the beginning — and by beginning we mean in this context Being and Time of 1927 — for uncovering things, i.e., objects, from their stale and habitual relations. For instance, Heidegger would talk about the shoes on van Gogh’s painting in a 1935 essay thus:

This equipment [the shoes] belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself.

This essence of the shoes — their shoe-ness — is what makes the shoes into shoes.

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Heidegger’s approach is quite different from what we are used to from the world of non-natural — i.e., computer — languages. If we want to define a property in a programming language we give it attributes, and the property is by definition the totality of these attributive entitites.

Not so with Heidegger. With him the shoe — the equipment — is given its thingness through it place in the world. It belongs somewhere, it is cared for by someone, it has the potentiality to rest somewhere.

The Wittgenstein scholar — and, perchance, utilitarian — is eager to object that, surely, the meaning of the shoe lies in its use. An unused shoe isn’t much of a shoe, if even a shoe at all, is it? If the equipment hasn’t been used there is a sense — this scholar would add — in which is hasn’t been brought to existence as equipment.

This is the key to understand the difference between the utilitarian approach and Heidegger’s way: Heidegger was not alone in observing how we in our dislocation from tradition and historicity have come to disconnect from the things we surround ourselves with. Are the things revolting against or to us? Are they escaping our grip, avoiding our attempts to capture them in our instrumental gaze?

Heidegger would have it this way: we cannot rely simply on our received wisdom so as to know things. As John van Buren points out in Reading Heidegger from the Start, already in his theological studies of the 1910s, Heidegger was critically aware of the necessity to go back “to the things themselves.” Here we are situated in an anticipation of what Heidegger would later refer to as the clearing: when the young Heidegger would open Martin Luther’s biblical references he ventured into a domain in which the wisdom of the Greeks could be repositioned in relation to the “factic life experiences” of the early Christians.

These experiences — grace, power, glory — and the way they gave force to Heidegger’s attempt to question dogma in theology and philosophy was what provided the basis and foundation for the path-clearing Being and Time.

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Heidegger on theology

In Being and Time Heidegger enumerates how a range of disciplines — sciences and humanist enquiry — have had their fields reconfigured as a result of deep-searching alterations in how their most basic objects have been grasped. The theory of relativity, the relation between tradition and historicity, and so on, have had such strong impacts on their respective fields of operation their their most fundamental beliefs have been altered. What is perhaps even more striking still today is Heidegger’s brief glimpse into the theological debate of his time.

Heidegger was thoroughly versed in contemporary theology: prior to writing Being and Time he had written papers on Luther, Calvin and others, and in the late 1910s he broke with his Catholic boyhood faith. It is in this light we should read his comments on the upheaval in theology, which, in Heidegger’s view, had been brought about by a renewed attention to Luther’s critique of a purely formal approach to belief. Heidegger comments that the crux of Luther’s argument was that the foundation of dogma at Luther’s time had not been consistent with attention to faith, and in certain respects would distort and falsify a relation to divinity that is faith based.

They key here is that to Heidegger the central concern of theology should be faith — how is man configured in his belief in divinity. Man and God, mortal and groundless ground, wesen and Being: these key concepts retain their sense in the context of faith and faith alone. Questions of dogma, tradition and denomination are secondary.

Where does such reflections place us in the most up-heaving debate concerning theology in our time: the claim that the core component of a world view — any world view — is faith? Theology today should embrace a notion of power that brings to the table precisely the question of belief: power is praised, upheld, cared for in so far as it is a power that is faithfully adhered to. And it is a view that has ample support in Scripture: in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we read that

that which is sown in dishonour is raised in glory. That which is sown in weakness, is raised in power. That which is sown in a body of nature is raised in a body of spirit. [1 Corinthians 15: 43-44]

Glory, power, spirit: these are words that properly belong in the domain of theology, they are complex and challenging, and yet they provide us with key terms for investigations that truly situate us in the centre of what should inform our most critical debates today.