I’ve been exploring the writing of the 20th Century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who wrote peculiar philosophy that was simple in German and nonsensical in any other language, and even though it was simple in German the Germans didn’t understand it, either. It didn’t stop him from being a Nazi, though, or from running the University of Freiburg for the Nazis, or from being the source of 21st century philosophy.
That’s all a long story. The idea I’d like to share with you tonight is a simple one. It has to do with the relationship of people to their physical environment, and turns on a peculiarity of German and English grammar. In English, it is the difference between a thing, such as a tree…
… and the phrase, “it’s a thing,” which means a place of social connection, like this apple tree, after 90 minutes work with two ladders and a chainsaw, after 50 years of wilding:
In German, this is the difference between a Ding, an English “object”, and a Thing, a parliament or a gathering place. In one sense, Heidegger is pointing out that every object in the world is a social relationship. On the other hand, and more specifically, he is pointing out that when one saysin German “Es gibt Sein”, or “There is Being”, in English, which in Canada we might translate as “Here I am,” one is really saying Thing (es) gives (gibt) Being (Sein), or human identity is created by noticing things, then noticing ourselves noticing them, then holding all time together in one moment. But that is getting close to Heidegger’s maddening complexity, so let’s simplify: a social relationship (a parliament or a talking place) with a thing creates human identity. Not with other people, but with the Earth.
In Canada, we claim these as emotional relationships. Heidegger is hinting that they are more. This is not to say that social relationships with people are not vital, but that one of our social relations is the Earth, in ways that are encoded at the root of grammar and language. It is not a word of things, or objects, in other words, but of conversations. This is a conversation:
There are no objects here, but what is here makes us human because to be human is to enter into this conversation. That’s Heidegger’s point. It was cast away for nearly 100 years, because Heidegger was a naive fool who thought he could outsmart the Nazi students, ex WW1 soldiers, who wanted to replace Natural History and biology courses at his university with grenade practice in the woods. Heidegger envisioned a philosophy based on taking walks in the fields — and that even a text, such as this post, was such a walk. He was a difficult man, but he saw a way to talk about the world without referencing “nature” or “God” or “science,” which has largely escaped us in Canada, so that’s something. Personally, I find honour enough in all of those terms, “God,” “science” and “nature,” but this thing about conversations with the world and walking as being a natural way of thinking, well …
…intriguingly, it’s what I have been doing with this interchange of images and thought in conversation for these ten years now. The criticism of Heidegger focusses on the exclusion of Jews from participation in his conversations, which might also be better described as an insistence on the local over the universal, if it didn’t have such a horrible context. It’s a fair criticism, and the same could be made in Canada: people living in inner city Toronto won’t recognize this country I speak of.
And yet it is a thing, just as they have their own things. The thing about a thing, a parliament, is that it is not a place of judgement or exclusion. It is a place of voice and inclusion. I like this, that the world is not made of objects, and that our identity is a gift given to us by relationships with the Earth. It’s just too bad that Heidegger confused natural leadership, with humans being lead by their relationships with the Earth, with the murderous, dictatorial leadership (if it can be called that) of Hitler. Still, the 1000s of years of experience he speaks for is not less than the 1000s of years of experience of people he saw as his enemies, to his shame and the world’s continued grief, and it is a good time to think of Canada, the space the country occupies, as having a meaningful relationship to the parliament that claims to represent its people. It’s time to become Indigenous. It’s not that Heidegger is our guide. He was too flawed for that. But he does show us where a path might lead, away from colonial objects to participatory discussion, and beyond our own species. He certainly shows us where there is no path at all, which is in deceit, double-talk and division, all of which are getting out of control again. Things aren’t exactly things. The time has come to talk with them.
Or, rather, the time has come to develop a language for doing so. Perhaps the interplay of text and image in his blog is a start. I’d like to think so.