Martin Heidegger – Letter on Humanism (1947)

Page numbers are from Basic Writings (Harper, 2008)

An answer to the question: Comment redonner un sens au mot “Humansime?” Heidegger will question from the start whether we should maintain the word at all. He begins by explicating, more clearly than usual, the relationship between thinking and being. Thinking is an action. The essence of action is accomplishment of what already exists (not cause-effect) as unfolding. Thinking “accomplishes” the relationship between Being and man, because in thinking, Being comes to language. “Language is the house of being.” For thinking to be real thinking, it must stay in its “element,” and its element is Being.  The quiet power of the possible is Being itself: “to enable something here means to preserve its essence, to maintain it in its element” (220).Ok, so maintaining thinking within being preserves thinking as potential.if it goes out of its element (i.e., into the public realm), it becomes mere techne.

Now Heidegger dives into this element via the notions of CARE and EK-SISTENCE, both which characterize the ways in which man “stands-out” into the truth of being,  an ecstatic quality that differentiates him from animals and all other things. Man sustains Da-sein in that he takes the Da, the clearing of Being, into care (231). That is, Dasein’s positionedness in a world becomes an element with the care-structure that determines worldly relations. I’m not totally sure how this connects with the discourse of proximity, but I’m pretty sure that this clearing is space in which man becomes being’s neighbor, as Heidegger will famously write (245). Man is “more” than merely human, to the degree that more is not additive, but more “originally”:

Man, as the existing counter-throw of being, is more animal rationale precisely to the extent that he is less bound up with man conceived from subjectivity. Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being. Man loses nothing in this “less”; rather, he gains in that he attains the truth of Being. He gains the essential poverty of the shepherd, whose dignity consists in being called by Being into the preservation of Being’s truth. (245)

Ok, this links up in all sort of interesting ways to Levinas’s notion of proximity. Determining the difference should take place via temporality (time of death v. time of the other). Heidegger is basically trying to articulate the essence of the human as neither the liberal subject nor the public man. “Humanism” should be thought in terms of nearness to being.

Heidegger believes that thinking in this manner–not overcoming but “climbing down” from the heights of metaphysics to the “nearest nearest”–is the “recollection of Being,” which exists before thought divides into practical and theoretical spheres. “Such thinking has no result. It has no effect. it satisfies its essence in that it is” (259). However, this mode of thought, that which attends itself to the clearing of Being (not solely to man as the ego cogito), as surpassing all praxis:

Thinking towers above action and production, not through the grandeur of its achievement and not as consequence of its effect, but through the humbleness of its inconsequential accomplishment. (262)

Indeed, the problem according to Heidegger is “quantitative.” We need to recognize the inconsequentiality of our “accomplishment” (as the unfolding of what already is) and the limits of philosophical thought: “less philosophy, but more attentiveness in thinking; less literature, but more cultivation of the letter” (265).




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