2.4 Realism and Relativism in Being and Time
One might think that an unpalatable relativism is entailed by any view which emphasizes that understanding is never preconception-free. But that would be too quick. Of course, if authentic Dasein were individualized in the sense of being a self-sufficient Cartesian subject, then perhaps an extreme form of subjectivist relativism would indeed beckon. Fortunately, however, authentic Dasein isn't a Cartesian subject, in part because it has a transformed and not a severed relationship with the ‘they’. This reconnects us with our earlier remark that the philosophical framework advocated within Being and Time appears to mandate a kind of cultural relativism. This seems right, but it is important to try to understand precisely what sort of cultural relativism is on offer. Here is one interpretation.
Although worlds (networks of involvements, what Heidegger sometimes calls Reality) are culturally relative phenomena, Heidegger occasionally seems to suggest that nature, as it is in itself, is not. Thus, on the one hand, nature may be discovered as ready-to-hand equipment: the “wood is a forest of timber, the mountain is a quarry of rock; the river is water-power, the wind is wind ‘in the sails’?” (Being and Time 15: 100). Under these circumstances, nature is revealed in certain culturally specific forms determined by our socially conditioned patterns of skilled practical activity. On the other hand, when nature is discovered as present-at-hand, by say science, its intelligibility has an essentially cross-cultural character. Indeed, Heidegger often seems to hold the largely commonsense view that there are culture-independent causal properties of nature which explain why it is that you can make missiles out of rocks or branches, but not out of air or water. Science can tell us both what those causal properties are, and how the underlying causal processes work. Such properties and processes are what Heidegger calls the Real, and he comments: “[the] fact that Reality [intelligibility] is ontologically grounded in the Being of Dasein does not signify that only when Dasein exists and as long as Dasein exists can the Real [e.g., nature as revealed by science] be as that which in itself it is” (Being and Time, 43: 255).
If the picture just sketched is a productive way to understand Heidegger, then, perhaps surprisingly, his position might best be thought of as a mild kind of scientific realism. For, on this interpretation, one of Dasein's cultural practices, the practice of science, has the special quality of revealing natural entities as they are in themselves, that is, independently of Dasein's culturally conditioned uses and articulations of them. Crucially, however, this sort of scientific realism maintains ample conceptual room for Sheehan's well-observed point that, for Heidegger, at every stage of his thinking, “there is no ‘is’ to things without a taking-as… no sense that is independent of human being… Before homo sapiens evolved, there was no ‘being’ on earth… because ‘being’ for Heidegger does not mean ‘in existence’?” (Sheehan 2001). Indeed, Being concerns sense-making (intelligibility), and the different ways in which entities make sense to us, including as present-at-hand, are dependent on the fact that we are Dasein, creatures with a particular mode of Being. So while natural entities do not require the existence of Dasein in order just to occur (in an ordinary, straightforward sense of ‘occur’), they do require Dasein in order to be intelligible at all, including as entities that just occur. Understood properly, then, the following two claims that Heidegger makes are entirely consistent with each other. First: “Being (not entities) is dependent upon the understanding of Being; that is to say, Reality (not the Real) is dependent upon care”. Secondly: “[O]nly as long as Dasein is (that is, only as long as an understanding of Being is ontically possible), ‘is there’ Being. When Dasein does not exist, ‘independence’ ‘is’ not either, nor ‘is’ the ‘in-itself’?”. (Both quotations from Being and Time, 43: 255.)
How does all this relate to Heidegger's account of truth? Answering this question adds a new dimension to the pivotal phenomenon of revealing. Heidegger points out that the philosophical tradition standardly conceives of truth as attaching to propositions, and as involving some sort of correspondence between propositions and states of affairs. But whereas for the tradition (as Heidegger characterizes it), propositional truth as correspondence exhausts the phenomenon of truth, for Heidegger, it is merely the particular manifestation of truth that is operative in those domains, such as science, that concern themselves with the Real. According to Heidegger, propositional truth as correspondence is made possible by a more fundamental phenomenon that he dubs ‘original truth’. Heidegger's key thought here is that before (in a conceptual sense of ‘before’) there can be any question of correspondence between propositions and states of affairs, there needs to be in place a field of intelligibility (Reality, a world), a sense-making structure within which entities may be found. Unconcealing is the Dasein-involving process that establishes this prior field of intelligibility. This is the domain of original truth—what we might call truth as revealing or truth as unconcealing. Original truth cannot be reduced to propositional truth as correspondence, because the former is an a priori, transcendental condition for the latter. Of course, since Dasein is the source of intelligibility, truth as unconcealing is possible only because there is Dasein, which means that without Dasein there would be no truth—including propositional truth as correspondence. But it is reasonable to hear this seemingly relativistic consequence as a further modulation of the point (see above) that entities require Dasein in order to be intelligible at all, including, now, as entities that are capable of entering into states of affairs that may correspond to propositions.
Heidegger's analysis of truth also countenances a third manifestation of the phenomenon, one that is perhaps best characterized as being located between original truth and propositional truth. This intermediate phenomenon is what might be called Heidegger's instrumental notion of truth (Dahlstrom 2001, Overgaard 2002). As we saw earlier, for Heidegger, the referential structure of significance may be articulated not only by words but by skilled practical activity (e.g., hammering) in which items of equipment are used in culturally appropriate ways. By Heidegger's lights, such equipmental activity counts as a manifestation of unconcealing and thus as the realization of a species of truth. This fact further threatens the idea that truth attaches only to propositions, although some uses of language may themselves be analysed as realizing the instrumental form of truth (e.g., when I exclaim that ‘this hammer is too heavy for the job’, rather than assert that it has the objective property of weighing 2.5 kilos; Overgaard 2002, 77; cf. Being and Time 33:199–200).
It is at this point that an ongoing dispute in Heidegger scholarship comes to the fore. It has been argued (e.g., Dahlstrom 2001, Overgaard 2002) that a number of prominent readings of Heidegger (e.g., Okrent 1988, Dreyfus 1991) place such heavy philosophical emphasis on Dasein as a site of skilled practical activity that they end up simply identifying Dasein's understanding of Being with skilled practical activity. Because of this shared tendency, such readings are often grouped together as advocating a pragmatist interpretation of Heidegger. According to its critics, the inadequacy of the pragmatist interpretation is exposed once it is applied to Heidegger's account of truth. For although the pragmatist interpretation correctly recognizes that, for Heidegger, propositional correspondence is not the most fundamental phenomenon of truth, it takes the fundamental variety to be exhausted by Dasein's sense-making skilled practical activity. But (the critic points out) this is to ignore the fact that even though instrumental truth is more basic than traditional propositional truth, nevertheless it too depends on a prior field of significance (one that determines the correct and incorrect uses of equipment) and thus on the phenomenon of original truth. Put another way, the pragmatist interpretation falls short because it fails to distinguish original truth from instrumental truth. It is worth commenting here that not every so-called pragmatist reading is on a par with respect to this issue. For example, Dreyfus (2008) separates out (what he calls) background coping (Dasein's familiarity with, and knowledge of how to navigate the meaningful structures of, its world) from (what he calls) skilled or absorbed coping (Dasein's skilled practical activity), and argues that, for Heidegger, the former is ontologically more basic than the latter. If original truth is manifested in background coping, and instrumental truth in skilled coping, this disrupts the thought that the two notions of truth are being run together (for discussion, see Overgaard 2002 85–6, note 17).
How should one respond to Heidegger's analysis of truth? One objection is that original truth ultimately fails to qualify as a form of truth at all. As Tugendhat (1967) observes, it is a plausible condition on the acceptability of any proposed account of truth that it accommodate a distinction between what is asserted or intended and how things are in themselves. It is clear that propositional truth as correspondence satisfies this condition, and notice that (if we squint a little) so too does instrumental truth, since despite my intentions, I can fail, in my actions, to use the hammer in ways that successfully articulate its place in the relevant equipmental network. However, as Tugendhat argues, it is genuinely hard to see how original truth as unconcealing could possibly support a distinction between what is asserted or intended and how things are in themselves. After all, unconcealing is, in part, the process through which entities are made intelligible to Dasein in such a way that the distinction in question can apply. Thus, Tugendhat concludes, although unconcealing may be a genuine phenomenon that constitutes a transcendental condition for there to be truth, it is not itself a species of truth. (For discussions of Tugendhat's critique, see Dahlstrom 2001, Overgaard 2002.)
Whether or not unconcealing ought to count as a species of truth, it is arguable that the place which it (along with its partner structure, Reality) occupies in the Heideggerian framework must ultimately threaten even the mild kind of scientific realism that we have been attributing, somewhat tentatively, to Heidegger. The tension comes into view just at the point where unconcealing is reinterpreted in terms of Dasein's essential historicality. Because intelligibility, and thus unconcealing, has an essentially historical character, it is difficult to resist the thought that the propositional and instrumental truths generated out of some specific field of intelligibility will be relativistically tied to a particular culture in a particular time period. Moreover, at one point, Heidegger suggests that even truth as revealed by science is itself subject to this kind of relativistic constraint. Thus he says that “every factical science is always manifestly in the grip of historizing” (Being and Time 76: 444). The implication is that, for Heidegger, one cannot straightforwardly subject the truth of one age to the standards of another, which means, for example, that contemporary chemistry and alchemical chemistry might both be true (cf. Dreyfus 1990, 261–2). But even if this more radical position is ultimately Heidegger's, there remains space here for some form of realism. Given the transcendental relation that, according to Heidegger, obtains between fields of intelligibility and science, the view on offer might still support a historically conditioned form of Kantian empirical realism with respect to science. Nevertheless it must, it seems, reject the full-on scientific realist commitment to the idea that the history of science is regulated by progress towards some final and unassailable set of scientifically established truths about nature, by a journey towards, as it were, God's science (Haugeland 2007).
The realist waters in which our preliminary interpretation has been swimming are muddied even further by another aspect of Dasein's essential historicality. Officially, it is seemingly not supposed to be a consequence of that historicality that we cannot discover universal features of ourselves. The evidence for this is that there are many conclusions reached in Being and Time that putatively apply to all Dasein, for example that Dasein's everyday experience is characterized by the structural domains of readiness-to-hand, un-readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand (for additional evidence, see Polt 1999 92–4). Moreover, Heidegger isn't saying that any route to understanding is as good as any other. For example, he prioritizes authenticity as the road to an answer to the question of the meaning of Being. Thus:
the idea of existence, which guides us as that which we see in advance, has been made definite [transformed from pre-ontological to ontological, from implicit and vague to explicitly articulated] by the clarification of our ownmost potentiality-for-Being. (Being and Time 63: 358)
Still, if this priority claim and the features shared by all Dasein really are supposed to be ahistorical, universal conditions (applicable everywhere throughout history), we are seemingly owed an account of just how such conditions are even possible, given Dasein's essential historicality.
Finally, one might wonder whether the ‘realist Heidegger’ can live with the account of temporality given in Being and Time. If temporality is the a priori condition for us to encounter entities as equipment, and if, in the relevant sense, the unfolding of time coincides with the unfolding of Dasein (Dasein, as temporality, temporalizes; see above), then equipmental entities will be intelligible to us only in (what we might call) Dasein-time, the time that we ourselves are. Now, we have seen previously that nature is often encountered as equipment, which means that natural equipment will be intelligible to us only in Dasein-time. But what about nature in a non-equipmental form—nature (as one might surely be tempted to say) as it is in itself? One might try to argue that those encounters with nature that reveal nature as it is in itself are precisely those encounters that reveal nature as present-at-hand, and that to reveal nature as present-at-hand is, in part, to reveal nature within present-at-hand time (e.g., clock time), a time which is, in the relevant sense, independent of Dasein. Unfortunately there's a snag with this story (and thus for the attempt to see Heidegger as a realist). Heidegger claims that presence-at-hand (as revealed by theoretical reflection) is subject to the same Dasein-dependent temporality as readiness-to-hand:
…if Dasein's Being is completely grounded in temporality, then temporality must make possible Being-in-the-world and therewith Dasein's transcendence; this transcendence in turn provides the support for concernful Being alongside entities within-the-world, whether this Being is theoretical or practical. (Being and Time 69: 415, my emphasis)
But now if theoretical investigations reveal nature in present-at-hand time, and if in the switching over from the practical use of equipment to the theoretical investigation of objects, time remains the same Dasein-time, then present-at-hand time is Dasein-dependent too. Given this, it seems that the only way we can give any sense to the idea of nature as it is in itself is to conceive of such nature as being outside of time. Interestingly, in the History of the Concept of Time (a text based on Heidegger's notes for a 1925 lecture course and often thought of as a draft of Being and Time), Heidegger seems to embrace this very option, arguing that nature is within time only when it is encountered in Dasein's world, and concluding that nature as it is in itself is entirely atemporal. It is worth noting the somewhat Kantian implication of this conclusion: if all understanding is grounded in temporality, then the atemporality of nature as it is in itself would mean that, for Heidegger, we cannot understand natural things as they really are in themselves (cf. Dostal 1993).
3. The Later Philosophy
3.1 The Turn and the Contributions to Philosophy
After Being and Time there is a shift in Heidegger's thinking that he himself christened ‘the turn’ (die Kehre). In a 1947 piece, in which Heidegger distances his views from Sartre's existentialism, he links the turn to his own failure to produce the missing divisions of Being and Time.
The adequate execution and completion of this other thinking that abandons subjectivity is surely made more difficult by the fact that in the publication of Being and Time the third division of the first part, “Time and Being,” was held back… Here everything is reversed. The division in question was held back because everything failed in the adequate saying of this turning and did not succeed with the help of the language of metaphysics… This turning is not a change of standpoint from Being and Time, but in it the thinking that was sought first arrives at the location of that dimension out of which Being and Time is experienced, that is to say, experienced from the fundamental experience of the oblivion of Being. (Letter on Humanism, pp. 231–2)
Notice that while, in the turning, “everything is reversed”, nevertheless it is “not a change of standpoint from Being and Time”, so what we should expect from the later philosophy is a pattern of significant discontinuities with Being and Time, interpretable from within a basic project and a set of concerns familiar from that earlier text. The quotation from the Letter on Humanism provides some clues about what to look for. Clearly we need to understand what is meant by the abandonment of subjectivity, what kind of barrier is erected by the language of metaphysics, and what is involved in the oblivion of Being. The second and third of these issues will be clarified later. The first bears immediate comment.
At root Heidegger's later philosophy shares the deep concerns of Being and Time, in that it is driven by the same preoccupation with Being and our relationship with it that propelled the earlier work. In a fundamental sense, then, the question of Being remains the question. However, Being and Time addresses the question of Being via an investigation of Dasein, the kind of being whose Being is an issue for it. As we have seen, this investigation takes the form of a transcendental hermeneutic phenomenology that begins with ordinary human experience. It is arguable that, in at least one important sense, it is this philosophical methodology that the later Heidegger is rejecting when he talks of his abandonment of subjectivity. Of course, as conceptualized in Being and Time, Dasein is not a Cartesian subject, so the abandonment of subjectivity is not as simple as a shift of attention away from Dasein and towards some other route to Being. Nevertheless the later Heidegger does seem to think that his earlier focus on Dasein bears the stain of a subjectivity that ultimately blocks the path to an understanding of Being. This is not to say that the later thinking turns away altogether from the project of transcendental hermeneutic phenomenology. The project of illuminating the a priori conditions on the basis of which entities show up as intelligible to us is still at the heart of things. What the later thinking involves is a reorientation of the basic project so that, as we shall see, the point of departure is no longer a detailed description of ordinary human experience. (For an analysis of ‘the turn’ that identifies a number of different senses of the term at work in Heidegger's thinking, and which in some ways departs from the brief treatment given here, see Sheehan 2010.)
A further difficulty in getting to grips with Heidegger's later philosophy is that, unlike the early thought, which is heavily centred on a single text, the later thought is distributed over a large number and range of works, including books, lecture courses, occasional addresses, and presentations given to non-academic audiences. So one needs a navigational strategy. The strategy adopted here will be to view the later philosophy through the lens of Heidegger's strange and perplexing study from the 1930s called Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), (Beitrage zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis)), henceforth referred to as the Contributions. (For a book-length introduction to the Contributions, see Vallega-Neu 2003. For a useful collection of papers, see Scott et al. 2001.) The key themes that shape the later philosophy will be identified in the Contributions, but those themes will be explored in a way that draws on, and make connections with, a selection of other works. From this partial expedition, the general pattern of Heidegger's post-turn thinking, although not every aspect of it, will emerge.
The Contributions was written between 1936 and 1938. Intriguingly, Heidegger asked for the work not to appear in print until after the publication of all his lecture courses, and although his demand wasn't quite heeded by the editors of his collected works, the Contributions was not published in German until 1989 and not in English until 1999. To court a perhaps overly dramatic telling of Heideggerian history, if one puts a lot of weight on Heidegger's view of when the Contributions should have been published, one might conceivably think of those later writings that, in terms of when they were produced, followed the Contributions as something like the training material needed to understand the earlier work (see e.g., Polt 1999 140). In any case, during his lifetime, Heidegger showed the Contributions to no more than a few close colleagues. The excitement with which the eventual publication of the text was greeted by Heidegger's readers was partly down to the fact that one of the chosen few granted a sneak preview was the influential interpreter of Heidegger, Otto Pöggeler, who then proceeded to give it some rather extraordinary advance publicity, describing it as the work in which Heidegger's genuine and complete thinking is captured (see e.g., Pöggeler 1963/1987).
Whether or not the hype surrounding the Contributions was justified remains a debated question among Heidegger scholars (see e.g., Sheehan 2001, Thomson 2003). What is clear, however, is that reading the work is occasionally a bewildering experience. Rather than a series of systematic hermeneutic spirals in the manner of Being and Time, the Contributions is organised as something like a musical fugue, that is, as a suite of overlapping developments of a single main theme (Schoenbohm 2001; Thomson 2003). And while the structure of the Contributions is challenging enough, the language in which it is written can appear to be wilfully obscurantist. Polt (1999, 140) comments that “the most important sections of the text can appear to be written in pure Heideggerese… [as Heidegger] exploits the sounds and senses of German in order to create an idiosyncratic symphony of meanings”. Less charitably, Sheehan (2001) describes it as “a needlessly difficult text, obsessively repetitious, badly in need of an editor”, while Schurmann (1992, 313, quoted by Thomson 2003, 57) complains that “at times one may think one is reading a piece of Heideggerian plagiarism, so encumbered is it with ellipses and assertoric monoliths”. Arguably, the style in which the Contributions is written is ‘merely’ the most extreme example (perhaps, the purest example) of a ‘poetic’ style that Heidegger adopts pretty much throughout the later philosophy. This stylistic aspect of the turn is an issue discussed below. For the moment, however, it is worth noting that, in the stylistic transition achieved in the Contributions, Heidegger's writing finally leaves behind all vestiges of the idea that Being can be represented accurately using some pseudo-scientific philosophical language. The goal, instead, is to respond appropriately to Being in language, to forge a pathway to another kind of thinking—Being-historical thinking (for discussion of this term, see Vallega 2001, von Herrmann 2001, Vallega-Neu 2003, 28-9). In its attempt to achieve this, the Contributions may be viewed as setting the agenda for Heidegger's post-turn thought. So what are the central themes that appear in the Contributions and which then resonate throughout the later works? Four stand out: Being as appropriation (an idea which, as we shall see, is bound up with a reinterpretation of the notion of dwelling that, in terms of explicit textual development, takes place largely outwith the text of the Contributions itself); technology (or machination); safeguarding (or sheltering); and the gods. Each of these themes will now be explored.
3.2 Appropriation, Dwelling and the Fourfold
In Being and Time, the most fundamental a priori transcendental condition for there to be Dasein's distinctive mode of Being which is identified is temporality. In the later philosophy, the ontological focus ultimately shifts to the claim that human Being consists most fundamentally in dwelling. This shift of attention emerges out of a subtle reformulation of the question of Being itself, a reformulation performed in the Contributions. The question now becomes not ‘What is the meaning of Being?’ but rather ‘How does Being essentially unfold?’. This reformulation means (in a way that should become clearer in a moment) that we are now asking the question of Being not from the perspective of Dasein, but from the perspective of Being (see above on abandoning subjectivity). But it also suggests that Being needs to be understood as fundamentally a timebound, historical process. As Heidegger puts it: “A being is: Be-ing holds sway [unfolds]”. (Contributions 10: 22. Quotations from the Contributions will be given in the form ‘section: page number’ where ‘page number’ refers to the Emad and Maly English translation. The hyphenated term ‘be-ing’ is adopted by Emad and Maly, in order to respect the fact that, in the Contributions, Heidegger substitutes the archaic spelling ‘Seyn’ for the contemporary ‘Sein’ as a way of distancing himself further from the traditional language of metaphysics. This translational convention, which has not become standard practice in the secondary literature, will not be adopted here, except in quotations from the Emad and Maly translation.)
Further aspects of the essential unfolding of Being are revealed by what is perhaps the key move in the Contributions—a rethinking of Being in terms of the notion of Ereignis, a term translated variously as ‘event’ (most closely reflecting its ordinary German usage), ‘appropriation’, ‘appropriating event’, ‘event of appropriation’ or ‘enowning’. (For an analysis which tracks Heidegger's use of the term Ereignis at various stages of his thought, see Vallega-Neu 2010). The history of Being is now conceived as a series of appropriating events in which the different dimensions of human sense-making—the religious, political, philosophical (and so on) dimensions that define the culturally conditioned epochs of human history—are transformed. Each such transformation is a revolution in human patterns of intelligibility, so what is appropriated in the event is Dasein and thus the human capacity for taking-as (see e.g., Contributions 271: 343). Once appropriated in this way, Dasein operates according to a specific set of established sense-making practices and structures. In a Kuhnian register, one might think of this as the normal sense-making that follows a paradigm-shift. But now what is it that does the appropriating? Heidegger's answer to this question is Being. Thus Heidegger writes of the “En-ownment [appropriation] of Da-sein by be-ing” (Contributions 141: 184) and of “man as owned by be-ing” (Contributions 141: 185). Indeed, this appropriation of Dasein by Being is what enables Being to unfold: “Be-ing needs man in order to hold sway [unfold]” (Contributions 133: 177). The claim that Being appropriates Dasein might seem to invite the adoption of an ethereal voice and a far-off look in the eye, but any such temptation towards mysticism of this kind really ought to be resisted. The mystical reading seems to depend on a view according to which “be-ing holds sway ‘for itself’?” and Dasein “takes up the relating to be-ing”, such that Being is “something over-against” Dasein (Contributions 135: 179). But Heidegger argues that this relational view would be ‘misleading’. That said, to make proper inroads into the mystical reading, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the notion of dwelling.
As we have seen, the term ‘dwelling’ appears in Being and Time, where it is used to capture the distinctive manner in which Dasein is in the world. The term continues to play this role in the later philosophy, but, in texts such as Building Dwelling, Thinking (1954), it is reinterpreted and made philosophically central to our understanding of Being. This reinterpretation of, and the new emphasis on, dwelling is bound up with the idea from the Contributions of Being as appropriation. To explain: Where one dwells is where one is at home, where one has a place. This sense of place is what grounds Heidegger's existential notion of spatiality, as developed in the later philosophy (see Malpas 2006). In dwelling, then, Dasein is located within a set of sense-making practices and structures with which it is familiar. This way of unravelling the phenomenon of dwelling enables us to see more clearly—and more concretely—what is meant by the idea of Being as event/appropriation. Being is an event in that it takes (appropriates) place (where one is at home, one's sense-making practices and structures) (cf. Polt 1999 148). In other words, Being appropriates Dasein in that, in its unfolding, it essentially happens in and to Dasein's patterns of sense-making. This way of thinking about the process of appropriation does rather less to invite obscurantist mysticism.
The reinterpretation of dwelling in terms of Being as appropriation is ultimately intertwined with a closely related reinterpretation of what is meant by a world. One can see the latter development in a pregnant passage from Heidegger's 1954 piece, Building Dwelling Thinking.
[H]uman being consists in dwelling and, indeed, dwelling in the sense of the stay of mortals on the earth.
But ‘on the earth’ already means ‘under the sky.’ Both of these also mean ‘remaining before the divinities’ and include a ‘belonging to men's being with one another.’ By a primal oneness the four—earth and sky, divinities and mortals—belong together in one. (351)
So, human beings dwell in that they stay (are at home) on the earth, under the sky, before the divinities, and among the mortals (that is, with one another as mortals). It is important for Heidegger that these dimensions of dwelling are conceived not as independent structures but as (to use a piece of terminology from Being and Time) ecstases—phenomena that stand out from an underlying unity. That underlying unity of earth, sky, divinities and mortals—the ‘simple oneness of the four’ as Heidegger puts it in Building Dwelling Thinking (351)—is what he calls the fourfold. The fourfold is the transformed notion of world that applies within the later work (see e.g., The Thing; for an analysis of the fourfold that concentrates on its role as a thinking of things, see Mitchell 2010). It is possible to glimpse the character of the world-as-fourfold by noting that whereas the world as understood through Being and Time is a culturally conditioned structure distinct from nature, the world-as-fourfold appears to be an integrated combination of nature (earth and sky) and culture (divinities and mortals). (Two remarks: First, it may not be obvious why the divinities count as part of culture. This will be explained in a moment. Secondly, the later Heidegger sometimes continues to employ the sense of world that he established in Being and Time, which is why it is useful to signal the new usage as the transformed notion of world, or as the world-as-fourfold.)
There is something useful, as a preliminary move, about interpreting the fourfold as a combination of nature and culture, but it is an idea that must be handled with care. For one thing, if what is meant by nature is the material world and its phenomena as understood by natural science, then Heidegger's account of the fourfold tells against any straightforward identification of earth and sky with nature. Why this is becomes clear once one sees how Heidegger describes the earth and the sky in Building Dwelling Thinking. “Earth is the serving bearer, blossoming and fruiting, spreading out in rock and water, rising up into plant and animal… The sky is the vaulting path of the sun, the course of the changing moon, the wandering glitter of the stars, the year's seasons and their changes, the light and dusk of day, the gloom and glow of night, the clemency and inclemency of the weather, the drifting clouds and blue depth of the ether” (351). What Heidegger's language here indicates is that the earth-as-dwelt-on and the sky-as-dwelt-under are spaces for a mode of habitation by human beings that one might call poetic rather than scientific. So, the nature of dwelling is the nature of the poet. In dwelling we inhabit the poetic (for discussion, see e.g., Young 2002, 99–100).
How does this idea of dwelling as poetic habitation work for the cultural aspects of the fourfold—dwelling among the mortals and before the divinities? To dwell among the mortals is to be “capable of death as death” (Building Dwelling Thinking 352). In the language of Being and Time, this would be to enter into an authentic and thus non-evasive relationship with death (see above). However, as we shall see in a moment, the later Heidegger has a different account of the nothing and thus of the internal relation with the nothing that death involves. It is this reworking of the idea of the nothing that ultimately marks out a newly conceived non-evasive relationship with death as an aspect of dwelling, understood in terms of poetic habitation. The notion of dwelling before the divinities also turns on the development of a theme established in Being and Time, namely that intelligibility is itself cultural and historical in character. More specifically, according to Being and Time, the a priori transcendental conditions for intelligibility are to be interpreted in terms of the phenomenon of heritage, that is as culturally determined structures that form pre-existing fields of intelligibility into which individual human beings are thrown and onto which they project themselves. A key aspect of this idea is that there exist historically important individuals who constitute heroic cultural templates onto which I may now creatively project myself. In the later philosophy these heroic figures are reborn poetically as the divinities of the fourfold, as “the ones to come” (Contributions 248–52: 277–81), and as the “beckoning messengers of the godhead” (Building Dwelling Thinking 351). When Heidegger famously announces that only a god can save us (Only a God can Save Us), or that “the last god is not the end but the other beginning of immeasurable possibilities for our history” (Contributions 256: 289), he has in mind not a religious intervention in an ‘ordinary’ sense of the divine, but rather a transformational event in which a secularized sense of the sacred—a sensitivity to the fact that beings are granted to us in the essential unfolding of Being—is restored (more on this below).
The notion of dwelling as poetic habitation opens up a path to what Heidegger calls ‘the mystery’ (not to be confused with the kind of obscurantist mysticism discussed above). Even though the world always opens up as meaningful in a particular way to any individual human being as a result of the specific heritage into which he or she has been enculturated, there are of course a vast number of alternative fields of intelligibility ‘out there’ that would be available to each of us, if only we could gain access to them by becoming simultaneously embedded in different heritages. But Heidegger's account of human existence means that any such parallel embedding is ruled out, so the plenitude of alternative fields of intelligibility must remain a mystery to us. In Heidegger's later philosophy this mysterious region of Being emerges as a structure that, although not illuminated poetically in dwelling as a particular world-as-fourfold, nevertheless constitutes an essential aspect of dwelling in that it is ontologically co-present with any such world. Appropriation is necessarily a twofold event: as Dasein is thrown into an intelligible world, vast regions of Being are plunged into darkness. But that darkness is a necessary condition for there to be any intelligibility at all. As Heidegger puts it in The Question Concerning Technology (330), “[a]ll revealing belongs within a harboring and a concealing. But that which frees [entities for intelligibility]—the mystery—is concealed and always concealing itself…. Freedom [sense-making, the revealing of beings] is that which conceals in a way that opens to light, in whose clearing shimmers the veil that hides the essential occurrence of all truth and lets the veil appear as what veils”.
It is worth pausing here to comment on the fact that, in his 1935 essay The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger writes of a conflict between earth and world. This idea may seem to sit unhappily alongside the simple oneness of the four. The essay in question is notoriously difficult, but the notion of the mystery may help. Perhaps the pivotal thought is as follows: Natural materials (the earth), as used in artworks, enter into intelligibility by establishing certain culturally codified meanings—a world in the sense of Being and Time. Simultaneously, however, those natural materials suggest the existence of a vast range of other possible, but to us unintelligible, meanings, by virtue of the fact that they could have been used to realize those alternative meanings. The conflict, then, turns on the way in which, in the midst of a world, the earth suggests the presence of the mystery. This is one way to hear passages such as the following: “The world, in resting upon the earth, strives to surmount it. As self-opening it cannot endure anything closed. The earth, however, as sheltering and concealing, tends always to draw the world into itself and keep it there” (Origin of the Work of Art 174).
Because the mystery is unintelligible, it is the nothing (no-thing). It is nonetheless a positive ontological phenomenon—a necessary feature of the essential unfolding of Being. This vision of the nothing, as developed in Heidegger's What is Metaphysics?, his 1929 inaugural lecture as Professor of Philosophy at Freiburg, famously attracts the philosophical disdain of the logical positivist Carnap. Carnap judged Heidegger's lecture to turn on a series of unverifiable statements, and thus to be a paradigm case of metaphysical nonsense (Carnap 1932/1959; for an nice account and analysis of the disagreement between Heidegger and Carnap, see Critchley 2001). But placing Carnap's positivist critique to one side, the idea of the nothing allows Heidegger to rethink our relationship with death in relation to poetic habitation. In Being and Time, Being-towards-death is conceived as a relation to the possibility of one's own non-existence. This gives us a sense in which Dasein has an internal structural relation to the nothing. That internal structural relation remains crucial to the later philosophy, but now ‘the nothing’ is to be heard explicitly as ‘the mystery’, a kind of ‘dark matter’ of intelligibility that must remain concealed in the unfolding of Being through which beings are unconcealed. This necessary concealment is “the essential belongingness of the not to being as such” (Contributions 160: 199). In Being-towards-death, this “essential belongingness” is “sheltered” and “comes to light with a singular keenness” (Contributions 160: 199). This is because (echoing a point made earlier) the concealing-unconcealing structure of Being is ultimately to be traced to Dasein's essential finitude. Sheehan (2001) puts it like this: “[o]ur finitude makes all ‘as’-taking… possible by requiring us to understand things not immediately and ontically… but indirectly and ontologically (= imperfectly), through their being”. In Being-towards-death, the human finitude that grounds the mystery, the plenitude of possible worlds in which I am not, is highlighted. As mortals, then, our internal relation to death links us to the mystery (see The Thing). So dwelling (as poetic habitation) involves not only embeddedness in the fourfold, but also, as part of a unitary ontological structure, a necessary relationship with the mystery. (As mentioned earlier (2.2.7), it is arguable that the sense of the nothing as unactualized possibilities of Being is already at work in Being and Time (see Vallega-Neu 2003, 21). Indeed, Heidegger's explicit remarks on Being-towards-death in the Contributions (sections 160–2) suggest that it is. But even if that is so, the idea undoubtedly finds its fullest expression in the later work.)
If the essence of human Being is to dwell in the fourfold, then human beings are to the extent that they so dwell. And this will be achieved to the extent that human beings realize the “basic character of dwelling”, which Heidegger now argues is a matter of safeguarding “the fourfold in its essential unfolding” (Building Dwelling Thinking, 352). Such safeguarding is unpacked as a way of Being in which human beings save the earth, receive the sky as sky, await the divinities as divinities, and initiate their own essential being as mortals. Perhaps the best way to understand this four-way demand is to explore Heidegger's claim that modern humans, especially modern Western humans, systematically fail to meet it. That is, we are marked out by our loss of dwelling—our failure to safeguard the fourfold in its essential unfolding. This existential malaise is what Heidegger refers to in the Letter on Humanism as the oblivion of Being. As we are about to see, the fact that this is the basic character of our modern human society is, according to Heidegger, explained by the predominance of a mode of sense-making that, in the Contributions, he calls machination, but which he later (and more famously) calls technology.