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Chapter VIII

Chapter VIII: The Thing

Thing and Stock

Heidegger’s recent essay on sculpture, Space and Art (1969), a kind of third epilogue to the lecture we have been analyzing, provides on its concluding page a concise statement of the role of art,

Sculpture: an embodying bringing-into-work of places and with this an opening up of realms of possible living for men, of possible persisting for the things which surround and concern men.

Sculpture: the embodiment of the truth of Being in its place-instituting work.[1]

Sculpture creates space in the forms which comprise a piece of sculpture as well as in the surrounded forms and the encompassing region. This creating is a meaningful structuring which has its meaning in terms of a world of people and things, the very world which finds its place to exist in the space created by this sculpture. The dialectic at work here is, however, suppressed by Heidegger in this essay, so that the first sentence quoted above already prepares the way for the ontological pronouncement which immediately follows. The work of art merely embodies an externally given truth of Being by providing a place for it.

In the transition from the one sentence to the other, a reversal of thought takes place which robs even the initial stage of its fullness – the reversal which necessitated the preceding chapter’s reinterpretation. The fullness of content which makes each piece of sculpture what it, as a unique work, is, is abstracted away until just the universal form of one of its functions remains: the creation of place. The emptiness of this characterization is then filled by Being. The original fullness of content does not, however, go unnoticed by Heidegger elsewhere; long descriptive passages repeatedly sing its praise in romantic tones. This contrast restates the paradox which the present chapter must unravel.

Throughout his writings, Heidegger takes up from different perspectives the dialectic between the opening of space, the living of man and the enduring of things. The old bridge in Heidelberg, the church bells on Christmas morn, the forest path of his childhood, the jug wet with Rhine wine and the sculptures of Giaocometti provide the material models which complement the linguistic ones of poetry and philosophy. The work of art is creatio par excellence: both traditionally as human creation for its own sake and ontologically as the creation of a place, be it for a simultaneously created world or for the embodiment of a given being.

The creation of space which takes this task as a conscious goal is, however, no longer fine art but architecture, building; where the two coincide – in the Greek temple, for instance – this is only possible because the practical goal-orientation is not total. Building, too, in its own way, provides a place for a world. A house is such a building and so is a bridge.

The bridge is clearly a special kind of thing (Ding); for it gathers (versammelt) the Four (Geviert) in such a way that it permits it a position. but only what is itself a place (Ort) can encompass a position. . . . A space is something encompassed, released within a boundary, the Greek peras. The boundary is not that at which something ends, but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its essence. . . . Something encompassed is always permitted and unified, that is, gathered by a place, that is, by a thing similar to the bridge. . . . The bridge is a place. As such a thing, it permits a space, in which earth and heaven, the holy and the mortal are let in.[2]

Here the Four, the interplay of heaven and earth, the holy and the mortal, is Heidegger’s notion of what we have till now called the world. The bridge, as a building-thing, is place, which, as such, provides a space for the Geviert.

Expanding upon one of Heidegger’s examples may illustrate the process at work here. The interplay of the Four cannot take place without a place that provides a space. But the bridge does not magically create an indistinct, homogeneous space, as if there were no difference between Heidelberg’s baroque cobble and sandstone bridge and a modern steel and concrete suspension bridge, between a Black Forest hut and a Manhattan apartment. The building structures the space it presents by framing, not just spatially; by relating, not just geometrically.

Joining the shore of hillside estates and contemplative Philosophenweg with the shopping district, university, city hall and church, Heidelberg’s historic bridge unites the private and public realms of its users, just as it originally allowed them to develop this division. In crossing the bridge, one is suspended between the eternal flow of the Neckar – wending its way between dams and locks – and the placid sky – rarely torn by military jets; between the historic-looking castle and the tourist boats. The bridge does not physically encompass town and country, castle and barge, but in providing a place for them to converge and appear, it lets them interrelate and become what they are.

The sculptural work, as a place, creates space in which a world can come to be. A building approaches this task systematically and designates by its own structure the outlines of the world which can occupy its room. These are two examples out of many of things which create space and structure a world within it. A jug is another clear case of something which not only defines a place, but in so doing, creates a space: not just the volume of its hollow, but the world in which it relates to heaven and earth as producers of its substance and contents or to the holy and mortal to whom it grants offerings and nourishment.

Heidegger finds the unity of the jug gathered together in its ability to grant the gift of its contents. In gathering itself together, the jug gathers together the world, the Four:

That which is gathered in the gift gathers itself together by appropriatingly letting the Four abide. This manifold simple gathering is the jug’s essence. The German language has an old word for what gathering is. The word is “thing.” The essence of the jug is the pure bestowing gathering of the singular Four in an abiding. The jug is essentially present as thing. The jug is the jug as a thing. But how is the thing essentially present? The thing things. The thinging gathers. it gathers, appropriating the Four (das Geviert ereignend), the Four’s abiding in something momentary: in this or that thing (Ding).[3]

To be a jug means to let a world come to be, which then lingers as a unity in the unity of the jug. The jug, like a work of art, but in its own way, is creator and preserver of a world and is this essentially.

The phrase, “appropriating the Four,” indicates that appropriating the Four is part of the jug’s function as a “thing.” The term “thing” does not refer to everything, but only to those things which “thing” in the verbal sense that they gather the Four’s abiding in themselves in letting the Four come to abide, in “appropriating” (ereignen) it. Still, this covers a whole host of “things” according to Heidegger, including the jug and the bench, gangway and plough, tree and pond, creek and mountain, heron and roe, horse and steer, mirror and banner, book and picture, crown and cross.[4] The last four of these we have already met in their more allegorical expressions.[5]

The analysis of the jug led to a notion of thing which, however, is not applicable to all things, not even always to jugs. The general term, “thing,” has changed its meaning with the historical changes in the meaning of its synonym, “being.” Heidegger’s usage is emphatic, utopian. The jug is not a thing in the Roman sense of res, nor the way the Middle Ages conceived of ens, nor even in the modern conception of object. The jug is a thing insofar as it things. From the thinging of the thing the presence of what is present in the manner of a jug first appropriates itself and determines itself.[6]

The tendency of our times militates against things being present as thinging things. Heidegger’s essay on the thing is, in fact, introduced by a consideration of our times in terms of the collapsing of all distances, the very opposite of the nearing which is essential to thinging:

The fact that the recent increasing elimination of separation has not resulted in nearness has brought distancelessness into dominance. With the lack of nearness, the thing remains annihilated in the aforesaid sense of thing. But when and how are things as things? We ask this in the midst of the domination of distancelessness. . . . What becomes thing appropriates itself out of the Ringing (Gering) of the mirroring-play (Spiegel-Spiels) of the world. Only if, perhaps sometime, the world worlds as world, then will the ring shine, which rings around the Ringing of earth and heaven, the holy and the mortal in the ring of their simplicity.[7]

This is the historical factor, which, when introduced into the analysis of the work of art, seemed to necessitate a reinterpretation in terms of a Being given independently of the work. What determines historically whether the things in an age will be things in the Roman, medieval, modern or emphatic sense?

This determination must, it would seem, be prior to the existence of the thing – in whatever sense – and therefore independent of it. Heidegger indicates that the thinging of the thing depends upon the worlding of the world, a worlding of which our world does not seem to partake. This answer, if accepted, pushes the historical question further in two directions:

  1. Is the worlding of the world independent of the thinging of the things in it?
  2. What determines historically whether the world worlds or not?

Technological Being

Is the worlding of the world independent of the thinging of the thing? Penetrating the thickets of Heidegger’s terminological jungle from the thing itself to seeming tautologies, one returns to the starting point to discover that one has traced a path from the thinging of the thing to the worlding of the world without ever leaving one’s seat. Heidegger’s bombardment of terms, distortions of the already flexible German syntax, may not reveal an experiential wealth behind each word in the concise presentation of the last few minutes of his lecture on the thing, but one can, at least, reconstruct a link between what he calls thing and world.

We have already seen that the thing, in being a thing, in thinging, grants a permanence to the Four in its unity. “Thinging, the thing abides the unifying four, earth and heaven, the holy and the mortal, in the simplicity of its self-unifying Four.”[8] This unity is a dynamic one, in which each of the four constituents appropriates itself within the unity of the Four. “Earth and heaven, the holy and the mortal belong together, unified with each other from themselves and on the basis of the simplicity of the unifying Four. Each of the four in its own way reflects itself appropriately within the simplicity of the Four. This mirroring is no presentation of a representation. The mirroring appropriates, while clearing each of the four, each’s own essence to one another in the simplistic unification.”[9] This mirroring process can be taken to be the experiential core of what Heidegger is struggling to communicate – not just on these pages, but in all the descriptions and schemes of conceptualizations he has published.

In the term mirror one glimpses an unfocused image of Hegel’s speculative thought, which once objectified itself with the help of a possibly less metaphorical term, mediation. What the newer jargon is meant to express must be experienced by each reader in the models referred to above: sculpture, the bridge, a jug, the church bells, a path through the fields. The play of mirroring, conceived on the grand scale, the appropriating mirroring-play of the simplicity of earth and heaven, the holy and the mortal, is called the world.[10]

This provides the answer to the question of the dependence of World on thing. The worlding of the world is practically nothing but the thinging of the thing disguised in different nomenclature. The synonymity is not exact; subtleties provide distinctions. The thing is a place which provides Space and provides permanence for the world, but it is more than a creative preserver in this sense: it fulfills this formal function, but also provides a content and does this precisely by bringing the four of the Four into a mutually mirroring play of unity. This play is the world. Translating again into Hegelian language, the thing is a moment in the dialectical (mirroring) process (play) of the world’s self-constitution (worlding).

The remark which raised the question of the relationship of world and thing was, however, somewhat more complex. It refers to the ring and the Ringing: “What the thing becomes appropriates itself out of the Ringing of the mirroring-play of the world.” The new terms are introduced in another series of defining pseudo-equations in which the processes of objects which are nothing but their processes are given new names, to which the same trick is played over and over again!

The fouring is present (west) as the appropriating mirroring-play of the simply inter-reliant. The fouring is present as the worlding of world. The mirroring-play of world is the propriating dance of Appropriation (Reigen des Ereignens). Thus the propriating does not primarily encircle the Four like a hoop. The propriating is the ring that rings by playing as the mirror. . . . The collected essence of the thus ringing mirroring-play of the world is the Ringing.[11]

What was concluded about the relationship of thing to world can be repeated for that of world to Ring. Through algebraic cancellation of the middle terms in these relationships, we see that the Ring is nothing transcendentally independent of the thing.

The determination of thing by Ring is misunderstood without its opposite, the characterization of the Ring as an explication of the thing. On the one hand, the thinging of the thing appropriates itself out of the mirroring-play of the Ring of the ringing. On the other hand, the thing lets the Ring abide in something momentary from the world’s simplicity.[12] The two poles of the dialectic can be held apart if we say that a world finds its place and permanence in a plurality of things, that the simplistic isomorphic image must be corrected by a many-to-one relationship of things to world. The world in which, for instance, the residents of Heidelberg are united with their Neckar Valley surroundings, with their heavens and the holy, finds its space in many places, its permanence in many things: bridge and alleyways, church and houses, castle and university, the sculptures of the gateways and the lyrics ringing through the beer halls. The Ring encircles all this in the aura which is old Heidelberg, according to the dialectic of whole and part which Hegel once outlined in that city’s lecture halls and journals.

But the relationship of thing to Ring as its explication is capable of a less dialectical interpretation as well. Perhaps Heidegger feels that the Hegelian method of analysis distorts by imposing an external scheme. An explication of something that remains with the thing itself, with its own immanent categories, can be understood as a phenomenological search for essence, a return “to the things themselves.” How does one articulate the essence (Wesen) of world without concepts heterogeneous to the phenomena? Heidegger’s attempt: “World is present (west) by worlding. This means, the worlding of the world can neither be explained nor founded on the basis of anything else.”[13] By articulating the world’s form of presence with the use of the verbal form of its name, no new determinations are imposed. Similarly, Heidegger chooses the same technique in uncovering the essence of the thing on its own terms. He defends this approach as follows: “If we let the thing be present in its thinging out of the worlding world, then we think about the thing as the thing. . . . If we think about the thing as thing, then we protect the essence of the thing within that region from which it is present.”[14]

Clearly both tendencies – phenomenological and, where that proves inadequate, dialectical – are present throughout Heidegger’s analyses, as any situating of his thought in the history of philosophy immediately reveals.[15]

Whether and how the two interpretations are compatible is perhaps less urgent for us than whether either satisfactorily responds to our original problem, the historical ontological question. We asked if the worlding of the world was independent of the thinging of the thing in the hopes that an affirmative answer would yield a clue to the central difficulty: what determines historically whether the world worlds or not? The doubly negative answer, that neither thing nor world determines the other, that they are inextricably mutually dependent within the dialectic which they both are, leaves us without a clue,

The paradox is this: on the one hand, a jug is a thing insofar as it things; for a thing to thing, the world must world; but the world does not world – that is the problem of our times. On the other hand, the presence of what is present – the Being of beings, whether a jug is a res, an ens, an object or a thinging thing – is determined, according to Heidegger, by the thinging of the thing and the thing in turn by the Ring of the mirroring-playing of the world. The historical problematic remains unclarified: what determines when the world will world? To this we can add the question: What is special about thinging and worlding as modes of the Being of things and worlds such that these modes determine all other modes even when only a different mode is present? What model will help us to unwrap this paradox? Where does Heidegger find a hint?

Forgetfulness of Being

The art of church bell ringing provides Heidegger with a striking example of a place for the Four to come together and receive a structuring:

The mysterious unity in which the church holidays, the festivals, the passing of the seasons and the morning, afternoon and evening hours of every day are merged into one another so that always one single tone rings through the young hearts, dreams, prayers and games – it is surely this which conceals itself with one of the most magical, holiest and most lasting secrets of the steeple, in order to bestow it, ever transformed and unrepeatable, until the last chime in the highlands of Being.[16]

The bells which ring out across the village before dawn Christmas morning are a highly structured, artistically unified combination of the tones which strike the hours of the day and ring in the seasonal holidays throughout the year. Each tone has its meaning in the rhythm of the community, in the life of man. Tradition has blended the various clangs into a harmony which plucks the strings of melancholy in the heart of a man who has been immersed in two world wars since swinging carefree from the bell tower ropes as a child. The sounds which once accompanied the experience of awe, the play of children, the excitement of Christmas, the burial of victims of war – soldiers, friends – the routines of a bygone life, these chimes now bring back into existence the life and world which they long ago accentuated, structured.

The familiar path through the fields, from home town to its neighbor, plays a similar role in providing a place for the meeting of man and nature: heaven and earth, the holy and the mortal. Out of the overtones and the over-all tone which the path lends to whatever takes place on it, one can read the nature of those constituents of the Four. The path can be made to speak by a kind of reversed dialectic, a reconstruction. Returning to town at night, retracing his footsteps of earlier and much earlier, Heidegger hears the church bells and listens to the field path:

Slowly, almost hesitantly, eleven hour strokes echo in the night. The ancient bell, on whose chord the tender hands of choir boys had often been rasped, trembles under the poundings of the clapper, whose ominous, comical expression none could forget. . . .

The exhortation of the path through the fields is now quite clear. Does the soul speak? Does the world speak? Does God speak? Everything speaks of the refusal of the sight of one and the same thing. The refusal of sight does not take. The refusal of sight gives.[17]

The serious thinker of Being and the playful choir boy he once was, the harmony of a romanticized farm life and the alienation of technological existence, the holy ringing of the bells and the death of God: the contrasts repeat the message of insight refused over and again. This is the message Heidegger hears everywhere and tries to unravel. The obfuscations of the good life, the just society, the presence of God – all point to their determinate negations by concealing them; the only hint of Being we have is our forgetfulness of it, as SuZ points out on its first page. The forgetfulness, expression of a refusal, is the very measure of good and evil, of man and world, as He may once have been.

The measure consists in the way the God who remains unknown is manifested by heaven as this unknown. The appearance of God by heaven consists in a covering up, which allows to be seen that which conceals itself, but does not allow it to be seen by trying to tear the concealed out of its concealment, but only allows it to be seen by protecting the concealed in its self-concealing. Thus shines the unknown God as the unknown by the manifestness of heaven. This appearance is the standard by which man measures himself.[18]

Leaving for now the things which reveal forgotten, refusing, self-concealing Being, we will see in the following chapter how Heidegger attempts to break through the appearances of our times to analyze Being-itself as the refusal which gives us our non-worlding world. Perhaps the reversal of perspective will help clarify the fundamental ambiguity in our Heidegger interpretation. We have, that is, repeatedly seen that beings play a role in the creation of Being. At first it seemed as if Being were merely a characteristic of beings as they exist and interact with one another, dialectically creating their own world. But then Heidegger threw in cryptic remarks pointing to a somehow pre-given Being which determines beings and their worlds. The difficulty of interpreting these relationships seemed almost to grow rather than disappear, calling for a new approach, a look at the over-all structure of Heidegger’s ontology in its most mature expression.

[1] Martin Heidegger, Raum und Kunst (St. Gallen: Erker Verlag), 1969), S. 13.

[2] Martin Heidegger, “Bauen Wohnen Denken” (1951) in Vorträge und Aufzätze, Bd II (Tübingen: Neske, 1954), S. 28f.

[3] Martin Heidegger, “Das Ding” (1950), ibid., S. 46.

[4] Ibid., S. 55.

[5] Cf. “The origin of the work of art,” op. cit., S. 50.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., S. 54f.

[8] Ibid., S. 50.

[9] Ibid., S. 52.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., S. 53.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., S. 52.

[14] Ibid., S. 53.

[15] Cf. Zur Sache des Denkens, op. cit., p. 64, S. 70f for Heidegger’s own statement of this.

[16] Martin Heidegger, “Vom Geheimnis des Glockenturms” (1956) in Martin Heidegger zum 80. Geburtstag (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1969) S. 10.

[17] Martin Heidegger, “Der Feldweg” (1949), ibid., S. 14f.

[18] Martin Heidegger, “Dichterisch Wohnet der Mensch” (1951) in Vorträge und Aufzätze, Bd II (Tübingen: Neske, 1954), S. 71.


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