What is the relationship between philosophy and poetry? How does Martin Heidegger conceive of this relationship, and what are the implications of it for his philosophy at large? This article begins with some context for understanding Heidegger and his place in the history of philosophy. We will analyze the aspect of poetry that Heidegger is most interested in: the experimental use of language.
Martin Heidegger and His Significance
Heidegger developed many of the ideas developed by Edmund Husserl, another significant 20th-century philosopher, into a distinctive system of understanding which remains extremely influential and the subject of intense scholarly interest.
Many of the most important philosophical figures of the late 20th century were directly influenced by Heidegger or, indeed, taught by him directly: Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, and many, many others.
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Part of the continued interest in Heidegger has to do with some of the interpretative difficulties his work presents. One way of understanding the supposed obscurity of his work is to take it as a mark of his systematicity. Put simply, if you tend to develop a large corpus of original concepts, even if they are clearly described at some point, by the time you are using these concepts in concert, your work can become utterly obscure to those who have not taken the time to read it closely.
Perhaps another issue has to do with Heidegger’s conviction that the fluidity and autonomy of language are central to a proper understanding of philosophy and its purpose. This element of Heidegger’s method is the concern of this article.
Poetic Philosophy, Philosophical Poetry
This article seeks to examine the relationship between poetry and philosophy in Heidegger, especially the oft-repeated idea that Heidegger really sees philosophy as a form of poetry, or at least that good philosophy should be—in some way—poetic.
In order to understand how Heidegger sees the relationship between poetry and philosophy, it is worth saying something about what makes poetry, poetry. One way of understanding the distinctness of poetry is to say something about the relationship between sound and the meaning of language. Poetry began as a performance art, and even in more modern forms (where strict rhyme and metrical systems are often eschewed), there is undoubtedly something in the idea that what poetry is, most fundamentally, has something to do with the harmony of sound and sense, the discordance of sound and sense, or some other way of relating the two.
Another way of thinking about poetry—and this is probably more important for our purposes here—is as a kind of experimental linguistic act. This is an invocation of that element of poetry which involves taking language outside of its usual context, the element of poetic skill which is the skill in the invention of new forms of description.
The relevance this has to Heidegger’s philosophy requires us to briefly extrapolate the distinction between being and Being. To be clear, that is not a typo; Heidegger uses the capitalization or non-capitalization of the word “being” (sein) to designate two different philosophical concepts.
Roughly, being can be taken to refer to things as we understand them, and Being to things in themselves. Of course, if we wish to claim—as Heidegger does—that we can know things in themselves, then it is necessary to distinguish two kinds of understanding. First, there are what is sometimes called “natural” forms of understanding, which we can use to grasp being but not Being. Heidegger’s philosophy is, at least in part, an attempt to distinguish between these two forms of “being,” and to drive towards the latter.
Poetry and Extraordinary Language
Poetry understood as taking language out of its ordinary structures of meaning can be seen as an attempt to create new forms of sense. It is also, at least in Heidegger’s understanding, a corrective to the excessive integration of metaphysics into the body of scientific thought.
For Heidegger, metaphysics goes awry when it attempts to assimilate itself into science, and this view extends to a skepticism of philosophy which represents itself as an attempt to make propositional sense. Heidegger is against talking about something and attempting to “represent [it] objectively,” but he is also against the “indefinite and flickering” form of representation that is often taken to be the alternative to scientific metaphysics, or metaphysical science.
Poetry is a third choice, or at least provides a willing analogy to what another path for philosophy might look like. Poetry reduces the strictures of the rules placed upon language and stands for freedom, association, and reconfiguration in the linguistic act. Poetry is space that might be occupied by an alternative conception of truth, standing against the conception of truth as occurring only in the space of judgment. This is the same view that holds that “the essence of truth lies in the agreement of the judgment within its object”—just the kind of philosophy Heidegger hopes to eradicate.
Poetry, in contrast, frees truth just as it frees language. This points to a central, metaphilosophical conviction we find in Heidegger—the essence of truth and, therefore, the essence of what it is to do philosophy well lies in uncovering that which has been covered, in peeling back what has been constrained, not in attempting to pin truth down, to make it more static somehow.
The Greeks, Language, and Thought
Heidegger’s work can be understood as an attempt to determine the future of philosophy. He wants us to do philosophy as a kind of practice of listening, of tuning or attuning ourselves to Being itself. How exactly we can do this is not clear, not even to Heidegger.
There have been various failed attempts to do this, and at a certain point in a short book entitled What is Philosophy? Heidegger enumerated them. They include doubt and despair, blind obsession with untested principles—“fear and anxiety are mixed with hope and confidence.” Even the failures themselves are incoherent.
The attitude Heidegger takes against the most is that of coldness—the calculative, detached mode of science—which fails to even recognize the need to become attuned to the nature of Being. Heidegger believes that these changes in the theorization of language are the reverse of the proper order of language and thought, i.e., conceiving of language as in the service of thought rather than thought in the service of language.
Heidegger explicitly presents this as a change, as cutting against a pre-existing conception of this relationship. The prior conception of the relationship between language and thought that Heidegger is primarily concerned with is that which was prevalent in Ancient Greece. In particular, the conception of language as logos, which is a Greek word denoting both “word,” but also “concept,” thereby signifying the absence of thought’s priority over language. Indeed, Heidegger takes it that language has priority over thought in this conception. Moreover, without paying close enough attention to language itself, to the autonomy power of language over thought, we cannot know what is distinct about philosophy.
Martin Heidegger: Language, Thought, and Poetry
Thinking is, therefore, in the service of language. So too, for Heidegger, is poetry, and he is intent on shining a light on the relationship between the two, even though poetry’s service to language is of a very different kind. Both poetry and thought take a kind of mediative role with respect to language itself.
Finally, when it comes to philosophy, we cannot discuss it as such, but rather as a “correspondence which discusses the appeal of the Being of being.” This undoubtedly ambiguous-sounding phrase is the culmination of What is Philosophy?. A more use-friendly paraphrase would be to say that philosophy discusses and responds to the thing itself which corresponds to our attempt to make sense of things. It is in this sense that philosophy done well must be a heterogenous exercise. There are many forms of being, and so there are many forms of attempted approaches to them.
What is Philosophy? concludes with the following paraphrase of Aristotle: “Being-ness appears in many guises.” It is the very fluidity of poetry, the possibility it presents for putting language in many different places, many different configurations, which explains why Heidegger appears to think of philosophy as parallel to poetry. It is in this sense that good philosophy can be considered poetic.