Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Extreme Humanism and the Name(d): A Leap over the Threshold of Language (Part I of IV)

What is the nature of language? What is the language of nature? Is it solely language that distinguishes human beings from animals, or is the difference between the two more substantial? Eschewing both Aristotelian empiricism which sought to define human beings as animals with reason and the Judeo-Christiano-Islamic tradition in which YHWH as creator-god placed human beings (created in the image of the divine) in a superior and dominant position over dumb beings (who in turn received their names from their newly created lords), Heidegger instead seeks liberation “from the mechanistic conception of life” (Concepts 189) as well as from the foundation offered by the Western philosophical tradition. The key differences between human beings and animals for Heidegger are the interrelated concepts of world and language. Heidegger considers three specific beings in his discussion of world and language: stone, animal, and human being. This discussion accounts for approximately one-third of the text of his 1929-30 lecture course published as The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. The wordlessness of the stone reflects its own worldlessness. Moreover, the animal that stands with human beings on the side of world is nevertheless deprived of that world. Heidegger further problematizes the relationship between animals and human beings in his 1946 “Letter on ‘Humanism,’” where he contends that dumb animals are ambivalently related to human beings: “on the one hand they are in a certain way most closely akin to us, and on the other they are at the same time separated from our ek-sistent essence by an abyss” (248)—itself a “bottomless” world, a world with neither ground nor substance. These essential traits make dumb animals “the most difficult to think about” (248). Yet the human being’s own relation to being (by way of language) is not necessarily any easier to grasp either. Human beings both have a world and are world-forming, but this ability to form worlds cannot be reduced to the typical metaphysical relationship: that is, the human subject does not merely impose a form upon his or her objective world. Rather, the world for Heidegger is the clearing of being itself. The worlding of the human being grounds him or her within being, in-forming the human being’s own being.

Language, for Heidegger, is closed to the experience of dumb beings: “Because plants and animals are lodged in their respective environments but are never placed freely into the clearing of being which alone is ‘world,’ they lack language” (“Letter” 248). Animals are always already at home—lodged—within being; they do not stand out in the clearing of being like human beings do. Heidegger defines language as “the clearing-concealing advent of being itself” (“Letter” 249). But if there is no clearing for the animal in which to stand out (ek-sist) in the first place, then the concealment of being by language becomes an unnecessary appendage or useless adjunct to the non-human animal: “living creatures are as they are without standing outside their being as such and within the truth of being, preserving in such standing the essential nature of their being” (“Letter” 248). Being has always already arrived for the animal; there is no need to announce its advent by way of language. Heidegger further explicates his notion of human ek-sistence—the standing out in world, or the clearing of being—in his 1949 “Introduction to ‘What Is Metaphysics?’”:

The being that exists is the human being. The human being alone exists. Rocks are, but they do not exist. Trees are, but they do not exist. Horses are, but they do not exist. Angels are, but they do not exist. God is, but he does not exist … . The proposition ‘the human being exists’ means: the human being is that being whose Being is distinguished by an open standing that stands in the unconcealedness of Being, proceeding from Being, in Being. (284)

Putting aside the question of domestication and enculturation of animals—which is outside the scope of this essay—an exploration of Heidegger’s conception of world would be useful in attempting an approach toward the difficult thinking necessary to understand just what he sees as the nature of the abyss as well as the nature of the kinship between animals and humankind. One wonders if it is possible to begin to close this gap. To this end, I would like to take up Martin Buber’s own ontological understanding of the relation between human beings and dumb animals in his 1923 I and Thou as a way of rethinking the fundamental Heideggerean question about language and non-human animals.

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