A Thematic Unity for Heidegger's Was Heisst Denken?

A Thematic Unity for Heidegger's Was Heisst Denken?

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A Thematic Unity for Heidegger's Was Heisst Denken?

ABSTRACT: This essay is primarily an analysis of Heidegger's Was Heisst Denken? I aim to provide a thematic unity for this enigmatic text, thereby rendering Heidegger's thoughts on thinking more available to those investigating the nature of human rationality and thinking. The procedure is to gather together some of the sundry themes and puzzling features resolved by unpacking this sentence: 'Most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.' The chief results of this study include the establishment of a global logic to the text, the identification of 'being-thoughtful' as the proper phenomenon to be studied, and receptivity ('listening for what calls for thinking') as the distinguishing mark of the thoughtful.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that precisely this work, of all my publications, is the least read. (1)

This remark by Martin Heidegger about Was Heisst Denken? is puzzling given that in the same interview he suggests that the most important issue facing us is the confrontation with what thinking is. If Heidegger is correct, then why does Was Heisst Denken? not rank among the most read of his works? Is it because we are unaware of the importance of encountering thinking? Because we believe already to understand thinking (e.g., thinking is "having thoughts")? (2) Either of these proposed explanations, it should be noted, would not startle Heidegger; he anticipated them in Was Heisst Denken? An explanation that he does not consider, however, is that Was Heisst Denken? is itself puzzling and stands in some need of critical clarification.

In this essay I present an analysis of Heidegger's Was Heisst Denken? The aim is to provide a thematic unity for this enigmatic text, and thereby to render Heidegger's thoughts on thinking more available to those investigating the nature of human rationality and thinking. I proceed by enumerating some of the puzzling features of the text, and included among them are the ambiguity intentionally built into the German title and the odd fact that Nietzsche and Parmenides take center stage in a series of lectures--which collected form the text--on thinking. The main thesis of my analysis is that one particularly promising way of showing how the twenty-one lectures hang together is by unpacking this sentence:

Most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking. (3)

This essay, then, is literally an analysis,

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and by the end of my discussion of the three major components of the sentence ("most thought-provoking", "in our thought-provoking time", and "we are still not thinking"), the reader will have been provided with the means by which to unify various themes and to clarify puzzling features in Was Heisst Denken?

I. Puzzling Features

Was Heisst Denken?, like many of Heidegger's post-Being and Time publications, was first a lecture series. The twenty-one total lectures are divided into two parts, and at the end of almost each lecture one finds a "Summary and Transition" section. But despite these sections it is still easier to grasp the main points in each lecture than to identify the thread running through the lectures. This is all the more puzzling given that the opposite, i.e., grasping the whole while being bewildered by individual sentences and passages, is the norm for Heidegger's texts.

The next puzzling feature is Heidegger's choice of title. The question Was heisst denken? is ambiguous due to the verb heissen. Heissen can mean "to be called", e.g., Ich heisse Martin, or it can mean "to call for", e.g., nun heisst es handeln. The title, then, can be understood either as What Is Called Thinking? or as What Calls For Thinking? Which sense does Heidegger intend? If both, for what reason? (4)

A third puzzling feature is the fact that Heidegger spends what seems to be an exorbitant amount of time discussing Nietzsche and Parmenides. Why talk about Nietzsche's "The wasteland grows" and the translation of Parmenidean Fragment 6 in a lecture series on thinking?

Another puzzling feature concerns Heidegger's view of philosophy and philosophers. At one point he congratulates his profession by noting that "Philosophers are the thinkers par excellence", (5) but yet the overall tenor of the Was Heisst Denken? is not exultant of philosophers and philosophy. Indeed, it is quite arguable that Was Heisst Denken? should be understood at bottom as a condemnation of philosophy and philosophers for having failed to think.

A fifth puzzling feature has to do with Heidegger's treatment of the Latin term ratio. Within the first six sentences of the opening lecture in Part One Heidegger points to it:

Reason, ratio, evolves in thinking. (6)

He then more or less drops it for the next seventeen lectures, only to pick it up with a vengeance in Lecture IX of Part Two. His claim there is that something of great significance has been lost in the translation into ratio of the Greek legein and noein. But what difference for an exploration of thinking could such an arcane point about the history of translation make?

II. "Most thought-provoking"

The phrase suggests that there is a specific and yet universal issue that is most thought-provoking. This suggestion amounts to the contention, in a contemporary argot, that there is an objective value-structure built into thinking. That which is most thought-provoking is not a matter of subjective evaluation. That which is most thought-provoking is not something for us to determine but rather for us to discover. To think, Heidegger claims, is to respond to what most demands our thinking, and that which most demands our thinking is a universal matter. Heidegger's contention is thus analogous to Augustine's contention about happiness in The Confessions. Augustine's key thesis is that happiness is a matter of properly ranking desires, and that there is an objective ranking of desires. One cannot be happy in the fullest sense if one's desire-set does not mirror the objective valuation of desires. Augustine thus concludes that happiness is a matter of ranking the desires for truth and God--both being eternal, secure, and nonexclusive--at the top of the hierarchy. In like manner Heidegger is advancing the thesis that one cannot think in the fullest sense if one does not think about that which most calls for thinking. Thinking involves the ranking of items in terms of their thought-worthiness, and for Heidegger that means locating the Being of the thinker (and thus Being itself--see Lecture VII, p. 79) at the top of the hierarchy.

Was Heisst Denken?, as I noted above, could be translated as either What Is Called Thinking? or as What Calls For Thinking?. This puzzling choice of title can now be resolved, for the foregoing shows not only that Heidegger intends the ambiguity but also the reason why. Heidegger's point is that one cannot properly address the question What Is Called Thinking? without answering the question What Calls For thinking? This distinction between the two questions and the priority given to the latter over the former I take to be Heidegger's most valuable contribution to discussions of thinking or rationality. One is not thinking if one does not rank objects of thought in terms of thought-worthiness. This point flies in the face of many contemporary accounts of rationality, for they suggest that one can be thinking well as long as one is following the right method. What one thinks about plays no normative role on such "ratio-inspired" accounts (see below for the contrast to legein-inspired models); indeed, critical thinking has come to mean critical qua method-following thinking instead of critical qua essential thinking. Heidegger's point is that such means-end accounts involve and indeed propagate a distortion; a life spent rationally researching the history of administrative memos is not a thoughtful life. (7) In rationally pursuing anything and everything we are not thinking.

Being calls for thinking, and it is the peculiar task of the philosopher to articulate this most intimate and yet universal issue. The idea that this (or anything) should be most thought-provoking does not sit well with many contemporary philosophers, but it is precisely the failure of philosophers to take to heart the importance of thought-worthiness that leads Heidegger to take a dim view of much of philosophy. On the other hand, though, he does claim that philosophers are "the thinkers par excellence". (8) What justifies this self-adulation? The reason is that the issue of thinking is one that falls squarely within the province of philosophy. (9) The philosopher differs from the chess player, biologist, and politician in that the philosopher's calling is to think about thinking as such. Moreover, to think philosophically about thinking, for Heidegger, is to come to a confrontation with a mode of existing--"being-thoughtful"--and thereby with Being.

The idea of thought-worthiness serves to unify large chunks of text. Heidegger observes that this idea rings alien to modern ears, and thus goes on to discuss the modern age--this thought-provoking time in which we are still not thinking--via a philosopher who has his finger on the pulse of the present age--Nietzsche. The idea of thought-worthiness also leads Heidegger to discuss a past time in which the ranking of issues in terms of thought-worthiness was manifest in the experience of thinking. This age was philosophy in the age of the Greeks, and it is a reason why Heidegger devotes the last lectures in Part Two to a reflection on Parmenidean Fragment 6.

There is another reason why Heidegger devotes key lectures to the Parmenidean fragment ("One should both say and think that Being is"). (10) The fragment indicates that the Greek experience of thinking was grounded on a link between thinking and Being. This link, articulated in the Parmenidean fragment, carries over into the works of Plato and Aristotle--despite the contaminations that may have entered into the Greek thinking experience through them. With Socrates in particular one catches the notion that built into thinking was a directedness towards order, goodness, beauty, truth, and Being. (11) Aristotle's remarks on God and nature also underline this link. It is more revealing, Aristotle holds, to consider the relation between God and the world in terms of God as ideal rather than as God as creator. God as ideal can explain the striving of natural substances; the acorn seeks to become an oak, and thereby reproduce, and thereby the acorn mimics God's eternality. In the same way, the human infant is on its way to becoming a thinking being, and so the human's telos is to mimic the highest being's thinking. Moreover, Aristotle wonders what God would think about, and concludes that thought thinking thought is the only befitting topic for the most divine activity. The philosopher par excellence thus mimics the highest being not only by thinking, but also by thinking about thinking.

III. "in our thought-provoking time"

The second component is the phrase "in our thought-provoking time". Reflection on this phrase will go far in providing a home for many of the seemingly gratuitous asides that intersperse Heidegger's text. The phrase suggests at least these questions: Who is the "our"?, What is the time period?, What is thought-provoking about our time?, and Is our time more thought-provoking than other times? A look at the text with these questions in mind will show that Heidegger's discussion is not nearly as cluttered as might appear.

1. Who is the "our"? The "our" refers not merely to contemporary philosophers; it refers to we who are standing within the current of Western history. Heidegger is thus not randomly dropping remarks about newspaper readers and that which is cherished by public opinion. (12)

2. What is the time period? The primary time period that Heidegger has in mind is the present age. "What did the Second World War really decide?" (13) The present age is the technological age, the age in which brain currents are recorded but the tree in bloom is forgotten. (14)

3. What is thought-provoking about our time? In the third component Heidegger claims that what is thought-provoking about our time is that we are still not thinking. But what is it about our time that explains why we are still not thinking? Heidegger, in accordance with Nietzsche's "The wasteland grows", diagnoses this age as the time of nihilism. The dominant characteristic of our time, then, is the forgetting or withdrawal of Being, and it is this that explains why we are still not thinking--even as we attempt to mimic intelligence via computer programs or connectionist networks.

4. Is our time more thought-provoking than other times? Yes. Heidegger's history is opposite to Hegel's: we are finding ourselves more and more forlorn. We are more distant from Being because the experience of thinking--in our technological age--has been shrunk to that of using a tool to operate within an already-fixed network of ends. This age, in other words, is more thought-provoking because in it ratio has triumphed over legein; thinking has become so severed from the being-thoughtful that the thoughtful being is in danger of being entirely eclipsed.

IV. "we are still not thinking"

The third and final component requires the most analysis, more than could be given in this essay. But what this essay can offer is a cursory introduction to key themes bound up with this component.

We are still not thinking--despite Parmenides' directive--because we have missed the object and source of thinking--Being. We will continue to miss this as long as we merely use thinking and do not dwell as thoughtful. All genuine thinking arises from and returns back to thoughtful existence; "thinking" that is not so anchored is homeless "thinking", e.g., calculating, computing, or even reasoning. Thoughtful dwelling is the existential ground of thinking; in such a mode we can hear what calls for thought. (15) Heidegger attempts to flesh out thoughtful dwelling by looking back to the Greek thinking experience in order to recover that which has been lost in the translation of the Greek legein into the Latin ratio. He finds that legein carries with it two significations that are not preserved by the Latin ratio: thinking as speaking and thinking as gathering. (16)

1. Thinking as speaking. Being calls for thinking, i.e., for articulation, and thus to let Being be in language, for Heidegger, is thinking. William Blake's "Nurse's Song" in the Songs of Innocence, for example, houses the carefree Being of playing children. The language of thinking plays a crucial role for Heidegger, and he develops the linkage between language and thinking in On The Way To Language. That is a thorny text also, but a pivotal idea is that we are not thinking because we are unheedful of the language of thinking. A full elaboration of this idea is impossible here, but the claim, roughly, is that to be thoughtful is to exist as authentically immersed in language.

The nature of the alleged connection between language and thinking can be somewhat clarified, I suggest, by making a key distinction that I find missing in discussions of what Heidegger means. The distinction is about the phrase "the language of thinking". This phrase is ambiguous, I note, and it will prove instructive to identify the different senses. To begin, "the language of thinking" is ambiguous in the way that "the idea of God" or "the call of Being" are ambiguous, and thus one can assume that Heidegger intends the ambiguity. In other words, all of these phrases can be taken either in the subjective or objective genitive, and those are possibilities on which Heidegger likes to play. The phrase, "the idea of God", for example, means "God's idea" in the subjective genitive and "the idea about God" in the objective genitive. In like manner the phrase "the language of thinking" means "thinking's language" or "the language found in thinking" in the subjective genitive and "language about thinking" in the objective genitive. The difference, then, is between the language found in thinking generally and the language found in thinking about thinking. It would be a mistake, I suggest, to regard Heidegger's claims on language and thinking as being merely or primarily about the language used in thinking; the words and metaphors "used" in talking about thinking can also lead us away from thinking. (17)

2. Thinking as gathering. Legein signifies gathering and the gathered, and Heidegger develops the nuance in this manner:

Thinking demands...that we engage ourselves with what at first sight does not go together at all. (18)

But by thinking qua gathering Heidegger means not merely Kant's synthesis of concepts, and perhaps even something different than what Wilfrid Sellars had in mind when he spoke of "numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death." (19) Heidegger's gathering is of Being:

Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of Being. (20)

Thinking is the gathering of that which calls to be gathered--the modes of our existence and Being as such. Thinking can begin when we hear that which calls for thinking:

Joyful things, too, and beautiful and mysterious and gracious things give us food for thought...if only we do not reject the gift by regarding everything that is joyful, beautiful, and gracious as the kind of thing which should be left to feeling and experience, and kept out of the winds of thought. (21)

Thinking, then, is not so much a matter of being an expert or technician in a field--even if the field be philosophy--as it is being responsive to the various modalities of who we are, and this points to the existential modality of "being thoughtful" as the ground of thinking.

V. Conclusion

Those investigating human thinking and rationality should now be in a better position to see if and how Heidegger can be brought to bear; the above analysis sponsers the following specific claims:

1. Those who take as the object of their theories a purely mental activity, "thinking", are missing the richest part of the phenomenon: being-thoughtful.

2. Being-thoughtful is not essentially a mental activity; it is rather the encounter with Being (the manifesting of meaning).

3. Means-end analyses sever thinking from its existential ground; one can be "means-end" rational and yet not thoughtful.

4. Receptivity is the distinguishing mark of thoughtful being; idealogues do not think.


(1) M. Heidegger, Interview in Der Spiegel, 1976, no. 23, 214.

(2) M. Heidegger, What is Called Thinking?, trans. F.D. Wieck and J.G. Gray (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 144. References are made to the English translation, but my reason for sticking with the ambiguous German title is given below.

(3) Ibid., 6.

(4) R. Mugerauer identifies four variations of the question, but a discussion of the two other senses is not necessary for the purposes of this essay. R. Mugerauer, Heidegger's Language and Thinking (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1988), 66.

(5) Op. cit., What is Called Thinking?, 4-5.

(6) Ibid., 3.

(7) What does the fact that adults will kick, scratch, jostle, and outmaneuver each other in order to buy a Cabbage doll or Jordan gym shoes as a Christmas present tell us?

(8) Ibid., 4-5.

(9) Hilary Putnam seems to be close to this idea when he claims that "...arguing about the nature of rationality [is] the task of the philosopher par excellence". H. Putnam, Reason, Truth, History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 113.

(10) Op. cit., What is Called Thinking?, 168.

(11) This is one reason why Heidegger calls Socrates "the purest thinker of the West". Ibid., 17.

(12) Ibid., 239.

(13) Ibid., 66.

(14) Ibid., 42.

(15) David Kolb writes,

Heidegger insists that the most proper action of thinking is not asking questions about grounds and foundations, but "listening" to what addresses us, where what addresses us is not a set of doctrines or a system of propositions ("Raising Atlantis: Later Heidegger and Contemporary Philosophy", Abstract, APA Proceedings and Addresses, 67:2, October 1993, 65).

(16) The quarrel about ratio and logos, Latin and Greek, is ancient. Heidegger, as a former seminarian, is aware of an anti-Latinate element in church tradition. Erasmus, in his sixteenth century translation of the New Testament, translates logos as sermo, a departure from Anselm's vulgate ("In the beginning was the word [logos]").

(17) The obvious example is the "instrumental" or "tool" metaphor of reason. See R. Nozick, The Nature of Rationality, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 133, 134, and 176.

(18) M. Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, trans. J.M. Anderson and E.H. Freund (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 53. John Sallis, in his The Gathering of Reason (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1980), 12, makes similar points:

Logos means originally: gathering.... Logos, as the gathering of opposed elements, composes them all into one, yet without suppressing their mutual opposition.

(19) W. Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), 1.

(20) M. Heidegger, On the Way to Language, trans. P. Hertz and J. Stambaugh (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 70.

(21) Op. cit., What is Called Thinking?, 31.
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