Heidegger, History, and Humans

Here are some short, scattered, structureless streams of thought on the following passage:

“Language is the primal poetry in which a people poetizes Being. In turn, the great poetry by which a people steps into history begins the formation of its language.”
-Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, pg. 191.

In this passage, Heidegger not only links language and poetry to “a people,” but (based on earlier comments) to the essence of “being human.”

From this passage, Heidegger continues:

“The Greeks created and experienced this poetry through Homer. Language was manifest to their Dasein as a breakaway into Being, as the formation that opens beings up.”

For the major European powers, the so-called “poetization” begins in the latter half of the 16th century and early 17th century. This can be observed in scientific rivalries between nations, leading to the eventual decline of Latin as lingua-franca. For the English language, Shakespeare and the King James Bible play the role of Homer. Yet this begins on a major scale in the 19th century, when various “nationalities” are formed out of linguistic groups.

We might criticize the historical contingency. It’s interesting that, in this essay, Heidegger associates “being human” with a particular notion of “poetry” and “history” that requires a “Volk” (a word with troubling connotations; Heidegger writes in 1936).

Derrida has shown that, while Heidegger does “deconstruct” the humanistic notion of a human being, he nevertheless “retrieves” and “reconstructs” an authentic sense of this. The notion of being Heidegger creates has an obvious Eurocentricism.

Heidegger claims the Greeks came into the essence of their language (and thus “as a Volk”) through Homer. Yet the Greeks wouldn’t have understood themselves this way: the Greeks saw themselves as “human” (and thus not “slave” or “barbarian”) because they defined their species as “existing within a polis.” The zoon logon echon served their own “Greek centered” view, where humans defined themselves through recorded deeds and honor (i.e. history). [It would be characteristic of Heidegger to “repeat” such gestures.]

Let us examine Heidegger’s own description of the human essence. He writes:

Being-human is determined by the relation to beings as such as as a whole. The human essence shows itself here as the relation that first opens up Being to humanity. Being-human, as the urgency of apprehending and gathering, is the urging into the freedom of taking over techne, the knowing setting-into-work of Being. Thus there is history. IM, 189.

This relationship to beings (as such/whole) requires this relation that uses techne to gather, collect, being, and bring-to-presence “beings” through the dispensation of Being. This creates history.

Leaving the question of “nationalism” aside, without question “national identity” is at stake in this essay. National identity connects to language, and language through poetry opens up Being, and with it the particularly “national” elements that govern history, philosophy, science, etc. 

“History” (Geschichte) for Heidegger (as clarified in later places), means the “sending” (schicken) that’s a “giving” (schenken)  in a movement of “destiny/dispensation” (Geschick) that determines and grounds an epoch of Being from Being itself (but in a particular dispensation) in a movement of self-concealing unconcealment. Yet this passage shows “history” (all understood as resulting from being) to be tied to apprehending and gathering, a movement Heidegger associates with the Presocratics, the inception of occidental history, yet also with the movement of “poetry,” which does (empirically, at least) ground “national identity.”

This passage, just as much as a number of other troubling places, is a crucial place for assessing Heidegger’s treatment of the west’s “other,” yet the obvious post-colonial criticism is not, in my view, necessarily the only way to interpret Heidegger’s analysis. “Being,” as the history of the sending of the various epochs of Being itself, presences in our own time as das Gestell: as technological mastery. This technological mastery, Heidegger points out in On Time and Being, violently forces itself upon the west’s “other.” Considered as such, if “history” (in Heidegger’s specific sense) stems from an inception of Being that “destines” the technological forces of neocolonialism and neoliberal capitalism, we might indeed critically appropriate the history of Being (along some of the same lines as Derrida) to expose the dominating elements of occidental history.

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