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.


Animals in Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’

Given the recent interest in Heidegger’s account of animals, I’ve compiled all of the references to animals in Being and Time. Some of these have, to my knowledge, been hitherto overlooked.

Heidegger fully develops his account of animals in the lecture course Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, and Solitude, a text to which both Derrida and Agamben devote significant attention. Here, Heidegger claims: “the animal is poor in world.” For sake of brevity, I shall not discuss these lectures in detail, aside from occasional references. Yet many of the cryptic remarks about animals within Being and Time foreshadow the analysis in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. In turn, these lectures point towards Heidegger’s well-known comment in The Letter on Humanism:

Of all the beings that are, presumably the most difficult to think about are living creatures, because on the one hand they are in a certain way most closely akin to us, and on the other are at the same time separated from our ek-sistent essence by an abyss. -Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” Basic Writings, 230.

Conscious of this abyss and anticipating his future project, Heidegger gives only a few words on animals in his magnum opus, yet his few comments are nevertheless intriguing.

Animals Perish

Heidegger discusses animals in relation to being-towards-death, implying that animals don’t die, but rather “perish.” He writes:

Let the term dying stand for the way of being in which Dasein is towards its death. Thus we can say that Dasein never perishes. Dasein can demise as long as it dies.
-Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 247.

For Heidegger: Dasein, unlike animals, relates itself to its death. While animals “die,” they don’t live with this possibility as a “certainty” ahead of them, nor need they cover up their impending demise.

Derrida analyzes this passage in Aporias, writing:


Heidegger never stopped modulating this affirmation according to which the mortal is whoever experiences death as such, as death. Since he links this possibility of the “as such” (as well as the possibility of death as such) to the possibility of speech,
he thereby concludes that the animal, the living thing as such, is not properly a mortal: the animal does not relate to death as such. The animal can come to an end, that is, perish (verenden), it always ends up kicking the bucket [crever]. But it can never properly die. -Jacques Derrida, Aporias, 35.

Derrida points to this “as such” as “indicating something like a flash in the sky,” that is: a moment of presence. He takes this phrase from Heidegger himself, quoting On the Way to Language where Heidegger writes:

Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do this.But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but remains still unthought.

Here, as elsewhere, Derrida is interested in the way such moments of presence create concepts such as human beings through differences such as the human/animal difference (I have already discussed Derrida’s concept of man here).

Of course, Heidegger wasn’t the first to claim that animals differ from humans because they are not aware of their impending death, yet his point is noteworthy: especially given the conceptual importance of “death” for the analysis. In “being-towards-death,” Dasein is able to understand itself as a whole; as a project with an expiration date. On this basis, Heidegger can work out Dasein’s “ecstatic” temporality. Yet can any holistic picture of animal existence be given?

Animal Temporality

The next reference, again well-known, is in the discussion of temporality: specifically the section discussing the temporality of attunement (Befindlichkeit). Here, Heidegger writes:

Only beings that in accordance with the meaning of their being are attuned, that is, existing, have always already been and exist in a constant mode of having-been can be affected. Ontologically, affection presupposes making present in such a way that in it Dasein can be brought back to itself as having been. -Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 346.

“Attunement” translates the German word “Befindlichkeit,” a neologism Heidegger coins from the idiomatic German expression “Wie befinden Sie sich?” a colloquial way of asking “how are you?” The phrase implies that one “finds oneself,” which is why Heidegger speaks of it as a “retrieval” at times. Attunement is an existential; it represents Dasein’s ability to be affected by moods. Here, Heidegger points to the temporality of moods, specifically that moods retrieve a feeling that “already has been,” and that sudden moods interrupt something already there.

Attunement, as part of Dasein’s ecstatic temporality, temporalizes out of the past. When asked “how are you?”, one can answer by reporting the events of the day. In this sense, moods “make present” from the past into the future.

Continuing the passage quoted above, Heidegger writes:

How the stimulation and touching of the senses in beings that are simply alive are to be ontologically defined, how and where in general the being of animals is constituted, for example, by a “time,” remains a problem for itself. – Ibid.

In Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger answers  (at least to some degree) the first question about the “stimulation” and “touching” of the senses. In Being and Time, Heidegger claimed objects can never “touch” each other. However (as we shall see), he intimates that this does not apply to Dasein or to animals.

In Fundamental Concepts of Metpahysics, Heidegger argues that animal experience involves “captivation” (Benommenheit), which “signifies: essential withholding [Genommenheit] of every apprehending of something as something.” (FCM, 247). According to these lectures, animals “have worlds,” but do not experience “beings as beings.” Juxtaposed to the discussion of animals is a grueling discussion of boredom, an analysis that takes Heidegger half the book. [For a discussion of this, cf. Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, pp. 49-73.]

Boredom shows, for Heidegger, that Dasein isn’t always “captivated” by its surroundings, but grows restless. I’ve always wondered if Heidegger had cats, and whether this might have affected his analysis of boredom.

The second part of this passage reads:

“how and where in general the being of animals is constituted, for example, by a “time” … -Sein und Zeit, 346.

Notice the indefinite article before the parentheses. His parentheses, as Heidegger reminds readers of Sartre in the Letter on Humanism, are important, and the sentence indicates that the experience of time may differ among animals.

Heidegger was aware of the experiments of biologists such as Jakob von Uexküll, a Neo-Kantian biologist who attempted to sketch out, from a transcendental idealist perspective, the “categories” of animal experiences. One of the more remarkable experiments by Uexküll flashed an image at different frames per second, testing the point at which the images fused into a single gestalt. Remarkably, animals such as Beta fish (which react very quickly to things) were able to distinguish the frames per second far past the abilities of humans, while slugs (without surprise) were significantly slower. Uexküll opined that animals experience the flow of time at different rates.

I take it that Heidegger uses the indefinite article and parentheses to indicate he is aware of these experiments. However, such experiments presuppose the “vulgar concept of time.” Like Kant, Uexküll sees events moving through a series of infinitesimal “nows.” Since Heidegger sketches out, in this section, Dasein’s unique temporality, the passage suggests that animal time, similarly, in some way cannot be reduced to the dogma of metaphysics of presence. Does this imply that animals have their own kind of ecstatic relationship to time?

Animal Worlds

The previous passages are well-known and have been discussed by both Derrida and Agamben. However, there are two other mentions that have not (to my knowledge) been discussed. The first of these is a subtle indication Heidegger makes:

The supplement “which are not worldless” must not be left out, because those beings which are not worldless, for example Dasein itself, are objectively present “in” the world, too. –Sein und Zeit, 55.

Here, Dasein is listed among the beings that have a world. In Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, we discover that the animal “is poor in world.” Although the passage doesn’t say much in itself, it demonstrates that, already in Being and Time, Heidegger was aware that the topic of animal being required careful consideration.

In Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger will speak of the animal as existing in its “environment” or Umwelt, a word Heidegger uses for human beings in Division I, Chapter Three of Being and Time. 

Animals as Natural Resources

Not only are animals “objectively present” from a particular point of view, they are also “at hand” like tools and pieces of equipment. Specifically, animals are revealed as resources and commodities.

These hides are taken from animals in the world which were bred and raised by others. We also find animals in the world which were not bred and raised and even when they have been raised these beings produce themselves in a certain sense. Thus beings are accessible in the surrounding world which in themselves do not need to be produced and are always already at hand. -Sein und Zeit, 70.

Here, Heidegger speaks of what we might call “nature.” While Heidegger reserves “nature” in Being and Time as a term for Kant’s concept of natural science, we might recall that Being and Time has a strong Aristotelian dimension. Heidegger claims that the Greeks used the “production” of things as an ontological basis for interpreting nature; in Being and Time, Heidegger “repeats” [wiederholte] this gesture. Heidegger continues:

“Nature” is also discovered in the use of useful things, “nature” in the light of products of nature.” -Ibid.

In Aristotle, natural things “produce themselves,” a key difference between an artifact created by something else. On this basis, Aristotle distinguishes the phūsei onta (natural things) from the techne onta (artifacts).

Like Aristotle, Heidegger first describes “natural things” from the standpoint of production. However, Heidegger goes on to suggest that this isn’t the only way that nature can be described. He first entertains the scientific description of nature as something “objectively present,” writing:

We can abstract from nature’s kind of being as handiness; we can discover and define it in its pure objective presence. -Ibid.

The pure, disinterested description contrasts, however, with the romantic notion of nature, a description that foreshadows Heidegger’s later work on the concept of phūsis. 

But in this kind of [scientific] discovery of nature, nature as what “stirs and strives,” what overcomes us, entrances us as landscape, remains hidden. The botanist’s plants are not the flowers of the hedgerow, the river’s “source” ascertained by the geographer is not the “source in the ground.” -Ibid.

Yet does the Dasein-centered analysis say anything about natural things in-themselves? According to the analysis, “handiness” is the “in-itself” of beings. In a footnote, Heidegger clarifies that this is “only as a characteristic of being encountered” (Ibid, 71 n.) In other words, human beings encounter natural things as useful “in-themselves,” but then move from here into encountering them “in their own right.”

Heidegger sees natural things as “produced” by nature, but he doesn’t associate this with reproduction (as Aristotle does), but with “resource.” Instead, he interprets these beings as available material, writing:

Hammer, tongs, nails in themselves refer to – they consist of – steel, iron, metal, stone, wood … But nature must not be understood here as what is merely objectively present, nor as the power of nature. The forest is a forest of timber, the mountain a quarry of rock, the river is water power, the wind is “in the sails.” -Ibid.

Here, nature reveals itself according to what Heidegger later will call the “Gestell” or “enframing,” the modern epoch of being in which all beings are revealed as resources available for the exertion of human power.


While writing Being and Time, I doubt the cabin-dwelling Heidegger looked out his window past the water trough into the black forest and saw only timber. Here, Heidegger isn’t interpreting nature “in its own right,” but only as it is initially encountered by and already familiar to human beings. If we abrogate to Heidegger’s later view, here Being and Time demonstrates itself to be subject to historical contingency (although Heidegger indicated in lectures that Being and Time couldn’t describe the “Greek Dasein”).

Nevertheless, Heidegger claims that a gulf separates us, even from our closest animal companions (cf. discussion of domesticated animals in FCM, pg. 210). As he states in the Letter on Humanism:

… It might also seem as though the essence of divinity is closer to us than what is so alien in other living creatures, closer, namely, in an essential distance which, however distant, is nonetheless more familiar to our ek-sistent essence than is our scarcely conceivable, abysmal bodily kinship with the beast. Such reflections cast a strange light upon the current and therefore always still premature designation of man as animal rationale. – “Letter on Humanism,” Basic Writings, 230.

Neither zoon logon echon nor imagio dei, Dasein still keeps ‘those beings unlike it, but not entirely worldless’ at a safe distance from its essence, maintaining that dangerous divide Agamben calls the caesura: “a life excluded and separated from itself” [The Open, 38], those forces of difference that create “Dasein” and “man” alike.

By Colin Bodayle

Arendt’s Footnote on Love

By Colin Bodayle

In The Human Condition, Arendt writes the following footnote:

The common prejudice that love is as common as “romance” may be due to the fact that we all learned about it first through poetry. But the poets fools us; they are the only ones to whom love is not only a crucial, but an indispensable experience, which entitles them to mistake it for a universal one. -Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 242 ftn. 81.

This powerful footnote has an aphoristic quality, warranting careful reflection. The footnote concerns the following clause: “… it [love] is one of the rarest occurrences in human lives …” The note claims that we mistake “romance” for love. How might these be understood as distinct?

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Derrida on ‘Being and Time’ and Humanism

By Colin Bodayle

In his surprisingly accessible “The Ends of Man,” Derrida gives Heidegger a close reading, providing unique insight into his project. The essay appears in 1968. The political importance of this year shouldn’t be understated, and Derrida draws significant attention to Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the student uprisings in Paris. 1968 ushers in a new epoch for both philosophy and the left, a turn away from the philosophy of the post-war generation (e.g. Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, De Beauvoir) towards the radical thinking of a new generation. This radical philosophy remains rooted (as was the previous generation) in Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger. The post-war generation placed these three thinkers under the heading of humanism, yet French philosophy in the 1960’s radically calls this humanistic label into question, provoking us to rethink the concept of “man” or abandon it completely.
In “The Ends of Man,” Derrida critiques the humanist misappropriation of these thinkers. Nevertheless, as we shall see, remnants of humanism remain, reasserting themselves even in Heidegger.

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