Art in the Thought of Martin Heidegger

In The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger boldly asserts that the claim to truth of modern science is founded upon a mis-interpretation of the being of the things it claims to command. Modern science inherits its mis-guided principles from the western-metaphysical tradition, which Heidegger argues was founded on a similar error. Heidegger argues that truth invoked by the work of art is distinguished from all other claims. The work of art does not attempt to command truth; it rather allows the truth of a being to come-forth in its concealedness. This experience does not originate in Heidegger own thought, but in the early thinkers of Greece. Heidegger considers the ancient Greek experience of truth as aletheia, (the dis-closure of Being in its concealedness), as the most significant disclosure of truth experienced by men.

The Aim of This Study – I shall explore Heidegger’s understanding of the hapenning of truth in the work of art. This will include elucidating art’s fundamentality in Heidegger's thought, and understand methods by which he interprets art. Thus the rift between Earth and World and the nature of The Fourfold will be discussed. Explanations of the metaphysical/scientific failure to show truth will then be shown.

I. The Primacy of Art in Heidegger’s Thought

Heidegger is interested only in truth’s place in the art work, itself. He cares nothing about the artist. Likewise, Heidegger cares nothing about the feelings brought about by a particular work of art. This starting point sets Heidegger at odds with the philosophical tradition, which attempts to understand artwork through either the beholder (Kant and Schopenhauer), or through the creator (Nietzsche). For Heidegger “the artist remains inconsequential as compared with the work, almost like a passageway that destroys itself in the creative process for the work to emerge.” (Poetry, Language, Thought, 40)

Heidegger, in the spirit of phenomenology, is concerned only with ontological experiences of truth. Modern subjective and relative truth, (the latest manifestation of metaphysical values), flattens all value and meaning (nihilism), darkening the possibility for any meaningful form of truth to arise. Heidegger’s thought leads us to an idea of truth that is alien to any of these prevailing theories.

The shift in Heidegger’s tought after Being and Time seems to be that which most clearly defines him as a thinker. The books that Heidegger publishes starting in the mid 1930’s emerge as the definitive works of his mature thought. The thrust of these works is highly revolutionary. Heidegger argues that searching for the truth of beings on a metaphysical and scientific ground is groundless, because this claim to truth rests upon a mis-representation of beings. Heidegger does not advocate that we abandon all together these methods of interpretation - by no means. We should however end the era of their dominance, for they inherently assault the nature of beings. Heidegger points to a new source for our highest truth --– the work of art.

(A) Earth and World

In The Origin of the Work of Art Heidegger introduces the concepts of earth and world. Heidegger uses these terms to allow for the happening of truth, which occurs beyond the horizon of metaphysical thinking. Earth and world represent the strife between the “concealedness” and “dis-closure” of beings present in the Greek experience of truth (aletheia) as the presence of Being.

Earth is the sheltering ground that provides sustenance for all beings. Out of the repose of the earth flows the fountain of life and death. Man drinks from this holy water and bears witness to earth’s mystery. The Greeks, too, understood the enigma of earth. The Greeks experienced the mystery of Being in the unfolding of physis. Physis was known as the “coming forth and arising in itself of all things.” Physis is transliterated into Latin as natura, “being born.” Thus is a translation that fails to preserve the original Greek understanding of physis, (the Romans did this all too often with Greek words). The English word "nature" is offspring to this error. The Greeks understood physis as the coming-forward of concealedness. The concealedness and unknowable of essence of Being is described by Heidegger in earth. The disclosure of Being, Heidegger calls world. The work of art is that which sets up a world and holds it open in a rift with the concealing earth. Thus the world of a work of art worlds – it is a coming forward of understanding, it is Being’s nature being uncovered, and brought out in a the open of the work. In the work of art, the concealedness of Being is preserved in earth, and truth is brought forth as world – exposing a tension between the two.

(B) The Fourfold

Ontologically, the fourfold describes the world man inhabits. Man thus never exists apart from the other three elements unified in the fourfold. Being is revealed through the mingling of the fourfold. Awareness of the mystery of the fourfold grants blessings upon men. But, if the fourfold is neglected the Being of beings is forgotten and men dwell in ignorance. Thus for the Being of beings to be revealed as the happening of truth in a work of art the fourfold must be understood.

The fourfold consists in the unified existence of earth, sky, divinities, and mortals. The united interplay of these four, united, is ontologically the world in which man dwells. Being is revealed through the mystery of the unity of the four. The strife of earth, sky, divinities, and mortals allows for openness of the world held together by the united four to occur.

Earth is the active unfolding of physis, the formation and growth of mineral and sea, the journey of the continents, the rise of plant and animal from the earth’s supple life-giving ground. Earth is self-sustaining and secluding. Sky, too, is the unfolding of physis – the forming expanse of clouds, the gusting of wind, and the flight of the sun and moon, and that that will forever be unknown in the silent depths of aether. When one speaks of earth or sky, one speaks of the oneness of fourfold because the mention of one element necessarily refers to the other three, for they are inseparable and essentially one. Thus it is inappropriate to speak of man without already picturing him standing there in a field or on a hillside above him the expanse of the heavens, awaiting the silent call of sky and on the sustaining stronghold of the earth. The silent call is answered by divinities, messengers of the godhead. When we refer to the godhead, that which is escaped all comprehension, we seek only to strengthen the nature of the fourfold by emphasizing the place of man in relation to his world.

We are too late for the gods and too
early for Being. Being’s poem,
just begun, is man.

(Poetry, Language, Thought, 4)

The implication here is that our current epoch, we do not experience the fourfold as a unity, there are no divinities for modern man. There is nothing held sacred by man. Thus there is nothing for man to measure himself against the sky and earth. He thus takes his measure as himself alone as "master of the world." This is the result of modern science and metaphysics which is groundless in its pursuit of truth. Technology only accellerates man's descent. We have heard that metaphysics has caused the death of God… thus the truths of metaphysics have caused us to forget that Being is even a subject of inquiry. Divinities, the means by which Being is revealed to man, much the way ancient poets were inspired by muses, no longer come to man in the strife of the fourfold. Modern nihlilism is the result of this.


Let us now look at some of the effects of man lack of autochthony, the lack of a purpose or sense of holiness. What does the death of art mean? If art is what preserves man’s groundedness in being, then art’s death means oblivion for man.


II. Doing Violenece to Metaphysics

(A) Confronting Hegel

A fundamental concern for Heidegger in The Origin of the Work of Art is to address Hegel’s proclamation of that “art is dead.” Hegel had argued that “art no longer counts for us as the highest manner in which truth obtains existence for itself.” Hegel thus speaks urgently to those who wish to preserve art. Hegel’s theory articulates what had been on the tip of everyone’s lips. We hold science to be the highest form of truth. Art, on the other hand, is no longer significant. Heidegger claims the dominance metaphysics has lead us to this bleak conclusion.

The authentic experience of the Being as a presence experienced by the beings with the beginning of the forgetting of Being. This finds its roots in the mis-interpretaion and the mis-understanding of the early Greek experience of Being. This forgetting takes is accelerated, claims Heidegger, in the philosophy of Plato, who no longer looks to the rift in physis for truth, but rather to the outward appearance of things, eidos. (As a side note: It must be pointed out that Heidegger misunderstands Plato, however let us continue.) This begins the epoch of history when people withdraw from dwelling in the mystery of Being. As metaphysics comes to dominate thinking, man begins to treat beings as if he could gain complete knowledge of their totality. In metaphysics we find the birth of the “correspondence theory” of truth, which treats all things as objectively present entities that correspond in turn with the truths attributed to them. Metaphysics, with its roots embedded in the Western mind, continued to grow until it became the dominate way in which we experience the truth of beings in our current world historical epoch. For Hegel, this dominance is a step forward towards man’s perfected end.

Hegel has articulated some of the fundamental characteristics of the modern age. He has expressed what was on everybody’s lips: that science is the highest truth, triumphant over art, a relic from a bygone epoch. Heidegger does agree with Hegel insofar as Hegel characterizes of modern man as a creature engrossed in scientific truths. However, Heidegger disagrees fully with the thrust of Hegel’s argument, that art no longer has the possibility of being a meaningful happening of truth. Thus, Heidegger sees a degeneration of truth since the birth of western metaphysics – a stance exactly opposite Hegel. Heidegger calls the history of metaphysics the history of the forgetting of Being.

B. Three Assaults on Truth

What consists in the assault of thing? An assault consists in laying waste to a thing’s essential nature. In the assault of the thing, we do not mean physical attack. Verily, the attack is levied by the man who pre-supposes a knowledge that treats the thing’s thingliness inappropriately. The assaulted thing is treated as an objectively present entity so it can be mastered and laid to waste… all to suit the needs of unfocused and misappropriated curiosity regarding certain relationships of beings.

What has been the thing’s most notorious assailant? It has been western metaphysics, if we are indeed to call it a thing. Metaphysics treats all beings as objects for man’s mastery. We have discussed the groundless nature and failure of metaphysics, previously. Metaphysics assumes complete knowledge of any given entity based upon a set of properties imposed upon it. We are to discover how rash we are in our assumptions. How derived our concepts are! Do we even understand what it means to be absorbed in a primeval struggle? Have we even thought about those forgotten ones who long ago reached out into concealedness of the untamed pre-historic darkness and by holy act opened a rift in Being? Do we ask ourselves – whence this radiance? Truth, by what means have you come to shine on men?

In The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger explains how western metaphysics stands on no solid ground in its treatment of “the thing.” He claims metaphysics is an assault upon the essence of the thing, and thus upon the work of art, insofar as it, too, is a thing. Things, according to Heidegger, are taken appropriately as the “lifeless beings of nature and objects of use.” The Greeks experienced this primordial relationship with the thing, and appropriated it as such in their understanding of it. Thus the Greek understanding serves as the paradigm for Western culture. The history of the assault upon the thing can broken down into three major misrepresentations of the being of the thing.

1. The Thing as an Aggregate and Core

Since man first became the being that he is, “things in their thingness thrust themselves into prominence again and again as the standard type of beings.” Thus, the properties associated with the nature of things, we imposed upon all other beings. Essentially the Greeks understood the thing as an aggregate of properties, ta sumbebeikota, assembled around a core, to upokeimenon, (which was always already there).

Heidegger claims that the Greeks experienced the Being of beings in this way. Yet, what deserves remark is that this understanding did not yet carry with it the mis-interpretations of subsequent generations and peoples. These Greeks had wrested with the phenomena of aletheia unfolding in the earth, and through their understanding of this primordial phenomenon, they understood much about the thing occurring within this realm. The Greeks did not forget their understanding when they sought to give name to these two qualities: the assemblage and the core.

The Greeks are the only world-historical people of whom Heidegger speaks at great lengths, who held a culture in which art was the highest form of truth and Being was rife for inquiry. Out of this high culture came: the poets Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Sappho; the thinkers Anaximander, Heraclitus, and Parmenides. The Greeks dwelled in truth far more than any other people have since. The Greeks are the forefathers of Western culture, because their experience of the Being of beings becomes the standard. This initial authentic experience is re-interpreted and mis-interpretted over subsequent generations and over thousands of years. Thus we are left at the tail end of what was already a bad idea.

Western thought begins with a formidable “rootlessness,” when these original Greek terms are transliterated into Latin, without “a corresponding, equally authentic experience of what they say.” In this transliteration upokeimenon becomes the Latin subjectum. This understanding of the thing pervades our everyday understanding, the simple propositional sentence is composed of the subject (core of the thing) and the predicate (aggregate of characteristics). It is odd that without thought we equate the propositional sentence to be the mirror image of the thing. Thus the sentence and thing structure arise together. The original phenomena out of which these structures arise once absorbed man and thrust him into wonder and contemplation, now this is lost and the thing and sentence structure have become part of our everyday language.

2. The Purely Aesthetic Thing

In the second major assault upon the thing, we attempt to turn to the “irrational” so as to avoid the pitfalls and the imposition of the rational mind upon things. Our attempt ends up to be rather pathetic, for our radical attempt at abandonment has ended in the Western rationality. The thing taken as aistheiton is “that which is perceptible by sensations in the senses belonging to sensibility.” This is an attempt to bring the thing closer to us, yet it will never succeed because we attempt to assign the thingly nature of the thing to be that which is taken by the senses. When attempt to attribute the soothing tones of the harp to be the thingness of the harp, the harp in its being vanishes from us.

3. The Standard Thing: Matter, Form, and Appearance

The third assault on the thing consists in taking the thing as the unity of matter (hule) and form (morphe). This interpretation appeals to things as we immediately view them (eidos). Thus we say that a thing is “formed matter,” because we can tell that has definite “shape” and “substance.” Heidegger argues that matter and form find their proper place as determinations of beings in the “essential nature of equipment.” Thus it is appropriate to speak of the javelin in terms of its form and matter - it pounded by a blacksmith into its shape from iron ore – yet at the same time, this is by no means an original determination of the being of a thing.

Throughout the history of the West, the matter-form structure was held to be the constitution of all entities. Biblical faith, which shaped the course of Western thought, takes the totality of beings as something created by God. Thomistic philosophy interprets the Bible takes the ens creatum to be a unity of materia and forma. Thus Medieval philosophy that holds truth to be within the unconcealedness of beings in matter and form, itself differs from the roots of biblical faith which believes the world by faith. Also, it is implicit that the totality of beings, ens creatum, consists in matter and form. From this Medieval basis we arrive at the modern interpretation of things, which according to Heidegger, either stays Medieval or becomes Kantian-transcendental. Both of these interpretations are thus groundless and are thus an assault upon the thingliness of things. And continue to place the locus of the world upon man.

-Heidegger, M. Potery, Language, Thought (trans. Albert Hofstader)
-Stambaugh, J. The Finitude of Being. SUNY: 1992.
-Vycinias,V. Earth and Gods Martinus Nijhoff: 1968
-Young, J. Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art. Cambridge: 2001.

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