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The Play of Paradox and Critique of Confusion: Heidegger’s “Language”

2008 September 19
by Tedb0t

   The medium of language, as a material available to speaking beings to shape into communication, is a beautifully imperfect and inaccurate phenomenon.  It can be read and reinvented in as many ways as there are readers, and such an ephemeral legibility is the root of its power to create consciousness, the result of inaugurating “things” and “world” into the reader’s mind.  Such were Martin Heidegger’s terms of understanding the process of forming consciousness, and in his labyrinthine essay “Language” (1950), he articulates a dense network of ideas through repetition, juxtaposition and paradox.  Through a discussion of the act of speaking, the analysis of a poem, and an elaborate chain of wordplay, Heidegger approaches not only an explication of his conception of language, but a demonstration of it.  The experience of the essay “Language” requires a relaxation of the reasoning, delimiting Ego, just as its author imagines language itself to be experienced.

   The study of this experience and its manifestation and integration into human consciousness is the concern of phenomenology, a discipline founded by German philosopher Edmund Husserl.  His 1913 book Ideas: A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology used the term as the “study of essences,” or the investigation and description of phenomena as consciously experienced.  He invented the “phenomenological reduction,” a process that attempts to reveal the structures of consciousness and the pure contents of the mind without reference to an outside existence.

   While all followers of Husserl attempt to purely describe these contents, they differ as to whether a total reduction can be performed and the actual results of the “pure description.”  Martin Heidegger, a colleague and critic of Husserl, initiated his forays into philosophy on that colleague’s heels but quickly diverged on the task of phenomenology, claiming that it should describe what is hidden in ordinary, everyday experience.  His first book, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time, 1927), was an attempt to articulate the ontology and phenomenology of “everydayness.”  The questions and ideas surrounding and informing such an investigation would be omnipresent in all his following works, to some degree, but a major turn in his career would find the later Heidegger less concerned with matters of “being-in-the-world” and more concerned with language, poetry and the ways they are experienced.  Ontology and phenomenology saturate these experiences, as well as the experience of his lectures and writings, and it is with a fundamental phenomenological slant that Heidegger approaches the question, “What is language?”

  Heidegger’s 1950 contemplation of language’s potential characterizes the extreme of his later writing, a complex and often convoluted poetics that has been criticized as “repetitive and obscure, a form of smoke and mirrors.”  He argues that “language speaks man,” (1120) a complete reversal of the traditional contention that speech, and therefore language, is the expression, presentation and representation of the real and unreal.  Heidegger is entirely dedicated to turning this argument on its head, insisting that language is the only pre-existing condition, not humankind.  While the prevalent viewpoint asserts that language could not exist without man, Heidegger asserts that man could not exist without language.  This is the core of his conception of language as the creator of human consciousness, a malleable and omnipresent phenomenological force that “speaks man” by facilitating thought.

   Heidegger develops these conclusions in three parts over the course of “Language.”  The first concerns language, speech and their traditional definitions, the second analyzes a poem by George Trakl, and the third diverges from the analysis to follow a chain of word inventions and associations in order to demonstrate language’s phenomenological power-its ability to form consciousness.  While the first two parts are comparatively straightforward, the third presents Heidegger at his most oblique and circuitous, coiling himself up in a regressive series of definitions of definitions.

   The essay as a whole, however, is not such an affair.  Heidegger opens with the human component to his thesis, a belief that “only speech enables man to be the living being he is as man” (1121).  He asserts that speech alone separates thinking humans from animals, that speech as language and language as speech create “man.”  Such an emphasis on language’s relationship to humans demonstrates that he is ultimately not interested in the structure, nature or essence of language, that set of inflexible observations which are universal about language.  He does not wish to “assault language in order to force it into the grip of ideas already fixed beforehand” (1122), but rather pursue ways that language manifests itself in existence and especially how existence manifests itself through language.  Of all the claims Heidegger makes in “Language,” this caveat most clearly prefigures the poststructuralist reaction against the systematization of language.  Heidegger’s prime interest in discussing language here is to purport language’s elusively creative power, the play of multiple meanings that later writers like Derrida would attach themselves to.  Though the factual utterances of what is and has been spoken may be aligned systematically, language as a preexisting phenomenon cannot be restrained or contained before it manifests itself in human consciousness.  Such is the phenomenological component of Heidegger’s argument, which studies how Being is constructed by human consciousness, a path not far distanced from language’s ontology, or how language “is” language.

   Heidegger’s thesis hinges on the idea that only language manifests the perceptible traits of things of the world, and embodies this in the term ereignis, translated here as “appropriation.”  As he states repeatedly throughout the essay, language is the inaugural granting of things in human consciousness, and the ereignis is that original appearance; that which gives rise to the perception of things.  Heidegger never returns to the question of human-animal separation, however.  Animals, which generally have no language ability, would be understood in this framework to also lack any perception of the things of the world, a conclusion that contradicts common experience.  It is possible that Heidegger’s belief is not that an animal cannot perceive, but cannot think about those perceptions, having no consciousness.  Language, therefore, must be considered as the progenitor of thoughtful perception, the internalization of outside reality in the mind.  A lack of language precludes conscious thought, according to “Language,” relegating animals to mere stimulus-response.  While the biology and psychology of such a conclusion is debatable, Heidegger desires primarily to investigate human language, human consciousness, and the poetry they create together.

   To find poetry, to locate the nexus of influences that give rise to poetry and poetic language, Heidegger must first disrupt the traditional and limiting definitions of speaking, which he believes synonymous with language.  He asks what it means to speak, and details three points of the prevailing answer, which all center on the assumption that speaking is expression.  In this view, speech “presupposes the idea of something internal that utters or externalizes itself” (1123), and represents the real, external world or the internal unreal.  Such a seemingly intuitive and pragmatic definition is anathema to Heidegger, who contends that it limits itself by being “merely logical” (1124).  The religious sentiment that language is of divine origin draws nearer Heidegger’s desires, but only insofar that it separates language from humankind-his ultimate wish is to reject the “identification of language as audible utterance of inner emotions, as human activity, as a representation by image and by concept” (1124).

   To accomplish this, Heidegger calls forth poetry, or that which is “spoken purely” (1124).  In a much too brief definition, Heidegger can only qualify a ‘pure speaking’ as an ‘original speaking.’ He later claims that “everyday language is a forgotten and therefore used-up poem, from which there hardly resounds a call any longer” (1133) but never expounds further on the problems that originality engenders.  He quickly moves on to present a poem that he hopes will reveal what is binding in the “bond between what we think and what we are told by language,” a return to consciousness-construction and phenomenology.  The second section begins with George Trakl’s “Ein Winterabend”, a three-stanza poem that provides for, and is alternatively the perfect manifestation of, Heidegger’s following analysis of both the poem and language itself.  Besides a brief statement of his formalist position that the author’s identity plays no part in the importance or significance of the poem, he initiates a direct description and analysis.

   The dissection of a poem, a hermeneutic procedure to get at its contents, inevitably encounters the expressionistic component of a work-in asking what a text means, one asks what its author is trying to express.  This mode of interpretation is exactly the outdated paradigm that Heidegger wishes to combat, an entrenched concept of language that has not changed in over 2,000 years.  He reiterates that “language is neither expression nor an activity of man,” but that instead, “language speaks” (1126) as a fictive act which neither describes settings or pictures them occurring somewhere in reality.  A poem “images” its contents in the mind of the reader, and the language that “speaks” it is a “manifold enunciating.”  The “enunciation” of a poem’s author is the second in a chain of many similar metaphors that Heidegger enlists to renew language, the first being “speaking” itself.  Over and over again, Heidegger uses these metaphors to describe what language does in order to counter, or stave off, the reader’s perception that they are descriptions.  Given his anti-expressionistic stance on the nature of language, Heidegger could not then use language to merely describe the way he conceives language works.  As a result, he reinvents a host of words (thing, world, bear, bid, speak, dif-ference, pain, still, peal, cor-respond) that take on vague and shifting connotations and denotations.

   “Language,” the essay as well as Heidegger’s subject, constantly struggles with this conflict between describing and being described.  Such a directional discord between seeming opposites and binary systems recurs throughout the essay in different forms.  When Heidegger gets to the core of his analysis of “A Winter Evening,” he encounters the dialectic between “inside/outside,” and proceeds with a detailed proposition that at once structures the poem and “deconstructs” the limits of a binary opposition.

   The first stanza, Heidegger claims, names objects and thus “calls” them into the reader’s consciousness, bringing “the presence of what was previously uncalled into a nearness” (1127).  These operations deal with the reader’s interiority, his individuality and the way things “bear” and “thing” themselves into being to the reader.  This, then, is the “inside” pole of the poem’s dichotomy, which “speaks by bidding the things to come” (1128).  By making the things of the world present inside the poem’s dwelling, the second stanza can then address the world and how it makes things possible by “worlding.”

   By the seventh and eighth lines, the last of the second stanza, the poem “speaks” not by calling “things” into being but by calling the abstract and poetic.  These lines read,

Golden blooms the tree of graces
Drawing up the earth’s cool dew.

and refer to ideas much broader in scope and reference than the simple objects of preceding lines.  To understand “tree of graces” and how it blooms “golden” requires interpretational activity on the part of the reader.  The snow, bell, house and table of the first stanza can be easily initiated into the reader’s consciousness because they are platonic ideals of things.  The “tree of graces” has no immediate meaning, but instead must be constructed from the reader’s own network of associations regarding the concept of “grace.”  Is this, then, the “world” that Heidegger refers to, the “world” that “designates neither the [secular] universe of nature” nor the “whole of entities present” (1129)?  For Heidegger, these two lines conjure the poetic by naming (calling, bringing forth) an “original speaking,” something that does not or cannot preexist consciousness but rather generates it.  This stanza is the “outside” pole of the poem, where “granting” takes place and “world grants to things their presence” (1128).

   The third stanza, then, is a dialectical synthesis and profoundly effective demonstration of how binary oppositions deconstruct themselves.  Heidegger realizes that the “bidding” of things and “granting” of world are different modes of the same operation, two sides of language’s coin, and that inevitably they encounter each other in a reciprocal relationship-for “world and things do not subsist alongside one another[,] they penetrate each other” (1129).  The intimacy of their similarities and dissimilarities are a threshold, a between-space, that Heidegger names the “dif-ference.”

   Furthermore, this dif-ference is manifested explicitly in Trakl’s poem as the “threshold” that “pain has turned … to stone” (1125).  Here, inside and outside penetrate each other, traversing a middle, both in the poem’s world and in Heidegger’s scheme of “things” and “world.”  Neither inside nor outside can exist without the other, independently.  If they then exist together, there will always be some kind of third term that joins and differentiates them.  The dif-ference “calls” the threshold into Being.

   This synthesis is a startling, proto-deconstructionist notion of binary opposites and paradoxes that play, resonating in their difference (and dif-ference, and differánce).  The differences between words are Heidegger’s playground in “Language,” as in the third section where he chants, calls up, a series of words that shed their prosaic meanings and take on new ones that are defined in terms of yet another new word.  On page 1132, “the dif-ference stills the thing…into the world,” but then, stillness is actually a “sounding,” a paradox that Heidegger addresses only by submerging it in further whirlpools  of “gathering,” “pealing,” “listening,” and “hearing.”  Still another paradox crops up when Heidegger asserts that “mortals speak insofar as they listen” (1133).  By putting one term in alliance with instead of opposition to its seeming antonym, Heidegger encourages the ‘play of paradox’ that asks the reader to question the opposition, to allow the possibility of multiple meanings.  The juxtapositions and reversals are provocations, and this in itself is a mode of the “speaking” that language performs.

   To understand Heidegger’s reversal “language speaks man,” for instance, one need only return to the idea of ereignis, that language is the sole facilitator of thoughtful perception.  Heidegger contends that human beings dwell in this appropriation, given that all human Being is a result of consciousness and therefore thoughtful perception.  If language creates all the things of the world in consciousness by the act of “speaking,” then humans, too, are “spoken” by language, and all the accoutrements that humans entail, such as the mind and consciousness itself-all are made manifest, “spoken,” by language.  This then is the fundamental cycle that Heidegger’s language generates: “Language speaks man,” and “man” inevitably speaks language, which speaks “man,” endlessly.  Human Being, and all of existence, is contained within and perpetuated by this cycle, a vast conclusion that places extreme importance on language as making human existence possible.

   This sweeping argument demonstrates the scale and scope of Heidegger’s belief in the power of language, especially poetic language.  For the later Heidegger, poetry and the human imagination are prime movers, and “language is the new house of Being” (1119).  Through metaphor, paradox, and confusion, language and “Language” speak themselves and humankind.  “Language is-language, speech,” Heidegger says, and lays the foundations for nothing less than a totalizing linguistic ontology:

Language speaks.  If we let ourselves fall into the abyss denoted by this sentence, we do not go tumbling into emptiness.  We fall upward, to a height.  Its loftiness opens up a depth.  The two span a realm in which we would like to become at home, so as to find a residence, a dwelling place for the life of man. (1123)


Poem Appendix

“Ein Winterabend,” von George Trakl

Wenn der Schnee ans Fenster fällt,
Lang die Abendglocke läutet,
Vielen ist der Tisch bereitet
Und das Haus ist wohlbestellt.

Mancher auf der Wanderschaft
Kommt ans Tor auf dunklen Pfaden.
Golden blüht der Baum der Gnaden
Aus der Erde kühlem Saft.

Wanderer tritt still herein;
Schmerz versteinert die Schwelle.
Da erglänzt in reiner Helle
Auf dem Tische Brot und Wein.


“A Winter Evening,” by George Trakl
Literal translation by Ted Hayes

When the snow falls on the window,
The Vesper bell tolls long,
The table is readied for many,
And the house is well ordered.

Many on their wanderings
Come to the door on dark paths.
Golden blooms the Tree of Graces
From the Earth’s cool sap.

Wanderer steps quietly herein,
Pain turns the Threshold to Stone.
There shines in pure brightness
On the table bread and wine.


“A Winter Evening,” translated by Albert Hofstadter

Window with falling snow is arrayed,
Long tolls the vesper bell,
The house is provided well,
The table is for many laid.

Wandering ones, more than a few,
Come to the door on darksome courses.
Golden blooms the tree of graces
Drawing up the earth’s cool dew.

Wanderer quietly steps within;
Pain has turned the threshold to stone.
There lie, in limpid brightness shown,
Upon the table bread and wine.

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4 Responses
  1. Allison permalink
    February 24, 2010

    This was really, really helpful. When I started reading, I was thinking about the introduction, where it discusses his involvement with the Nazis and the subsequent controversy over his work as a result. At first, I thought, “Well, I won’t let that influence my reading of this article…” and by the time the man honestly used the word “bethinged” I was cursing that Nazi like mad. Thanks for clearing it all up for me–

    • February 24, 2010

      Thanks!! I’m glad you found it helpful!

  2. darby permalink
    March 10, 2010

    thank you! very helpful

  3. May 14, 2013

    Thanks a million… this article really helped me underdand Heidegger’s crazy mind!

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