Heidegger on Thinking 1.4

hIn this lecture Heidegger’s philosophical claims come to be made much more explicitly, leaving me on more comfortable territory than in previous lectures. In order to proceed with the broader project of the series, he turns to the question “what is this anyway – to form an idea, a representation?” (pg 39). In addressing this question he intends to “leave the field of philosophical speculation behind us, and first of all investigate carefully and scientifically how matters really stand with the ideas that occur in living beings, especially in men and animals” (pg 40). However to do this ‘scientifically’ does not mean that this will be a matter of ‘scientific findings’. Such findings are important and correct but they still, for Heidegger, ‘operate within a realm’ which we must leave behind in order to address the more fundamental question at stake. This is not done “in the proud delusion that we have all the answers, but out of discretion inspired by a lack of knowledge” (pg 41). So what is an idea? It comes from the Greek word ειδω meaning “to see, face, meet, be face-to-face” (pg 41). In contrary to the representational understanding which has long prevailed upon the ‘field of philosophical speculation’, such as would see ideas as things we have in our heads, Heidegger wishes to reclaim the meeting involved here:

Instead we stand before a tree in bloom, for example – and the tree stands before us. The tree faces us. The tree and we meet one another, as the tree stands there and we stand face to face with it. As we are in this relation of one to the other and before the other, the tree and we are. This face-to-face meeting is not, then, one of these “ideas” buzzing around in our heads. (pg 41)

In making this claim, argues Heidegger, we “have leapt, out of the familiar realm of science and even, as we shall see, out of the realm of philosophy”. But in doing so we do not find ourselves in “an abyss”. Rather we are on “firm soil”. This is “that soil upon which we live and die”. It is “the soil on which we really stand” (pg 41). What I take him to be saying here is that the representationalism dominant upon the ‘field of philosophical speculation’ is fundamentally grounded in a process of abstraction from our day-to-day existence. We live and die face-to-face with things, not locked inside private universes forever cut off from a cold world devoid of meaning. This does not entail a denial of our physiology, after all “many things may take place in our brain when we stand on a meadow and have standing before us a blossoming tree in all its radiance and fragrance” (pg 42), but it is rather to insist upon asking:

While science records the brain currents, what becomes of the tree in bloom? What becomes of the meadow? What becomes of the man – not of the brain but of the man, who may die under our hands tomorrow and be lost to us, and who at one time came to our encounter? What becomes of the face-to-face, the meeting, the seeing, the forming of the idea, in which the tree presents itself and man comes to stand face-to-face with the tree?

When ideas are formed in this way, a variety of things happen presumably also in what is described as the sphere of consciousness and regarded as pertaining to the soul. But does the tree stand “in our consciousness,” or does it stand on the meadow? Does the meadow lie in the soul, as experience, or is it spread out there on earth? Is the earth in our head? Or do we stand on the earth? (pg 42-43)

The last question best conveys the essence of this: is the earth in our heads or do we stand on the earth? That question is perhaps the most concisely polemic affirmation of realism I’ve ever encountered. Returning to the example of the tree in bloom, Heidegger’s point is that we not “drop the tree in bloom, but for once let it stand where it stands”. Our thought “has never let the tree stands where it stands” (pg 44). This insistence that we recognise the being of things, our capacity to meet them as they stand, has implications for how Heidegger views scientific explanation which I’m unsure how I feel about:

For we shall forfeit everything before we know it, once the sciences of physics, physiology , and psychology, not to forget scientific philosophy, display the panoply of their documents and proofs, to explain to us that what we see and accept is properly not a tree but in reality a void, thinly sprinkled with electric charges here and there that race hither and yon at enormous speeds. It will not do to admit, just for the scientifically unguarded moments, so to speak, that, naturally, we are standing face to face with a tree in bloom, only to affirm the very next moment as equally obvious that this view, naturally, typifies only the naive, because pre-scientific, comprehension of things. For with that affirmation we have conceded something whose consequences we have hardly considered, and that is: that those sciences do in face decide what of the tree in bloom may or may not be considered valid reality. Whence do the sciences – which necessarily are always in the dark about the origin of their own nature – derive the authority to pronounce such verdicts? Whence do the sciences derive the right to decide what man’s place is, and to offer themselves as the standard that justifies such decisions? (pg 45)

Leaving aside my uncertainty about this passage for now, it seems that for Heidegger thinking involves a capacity for relatedness. We need to meet that which is thought-provoking so as to let it “stand where it stands”. The question “what is thinking?” is not an end in itself, rather it is a waymark we use to “remind ourselves of the way we are trying to walk” (pg 44). We are seeking to to take “our departure from a thinking whose essential nature seems to lie in the forming of ideas and to exhaust itself in that” (pg 45). This ‘traditional nature of thinking’, encompassing the formation of representational ideas about states of affairs, might be left behind if we “give particularly close attention to that stretch of way on which we are putting our feet” (pg 46).


  1. A thought filled reflection on Heidegger’s struggle to returns to the living world out of which the abstractions (be they valid or invalid, true or false) emerge. Is not his greatest thought “wonder of all wonders, that what is is.”?

  2. The quote is from the post script to Heidegger’s essay “What is Metaphysics?” found in the book “Existence and Being” which has a very extensive introduction by Werner Brock. The context for the quote is the following found on page 355 of the edition of the above book that I have (an old paperback):

    Readiness for dread is to say “Yes!” to the inwardness of things, to fulfill the highest demand which alone touches man to the quick. Man alone of all beings, when addressed by the voice of Being, experiences the marvel of all marvels: that what-is is.

    1. ah thanks – i actually have that on my shelf. i’ll move on to it next. i made a big effort to get to grips with heidegger as a masters student 6/7 years ago and completely failed it. it’s really pleasing to find i can make some (perhaps idiosyncratic) sense of it now

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