Being and Heidegger

I am reading another dissertation on Heidegger–a rather good one, I might add. But I am struck by a disturbing thought about this very influential philosopher.

The first concerns the central importance for his philosophy of the word “being” (“Sein” in German). I wonder whether there is such a thing (quality, action, process, event) as “being” at all. Heidegger may be right that the Greeks after Socrates had a bad habit of reifying bits of language, a habit shared by the German language and its over-easy facility for making abstract nouns. But suppose we take his critique a bit further. What if the words “be”, “is,” “einai,” “esse,” “etre,” etc are just a piece of Indo-European grammar, a copulative or a sort of preposition or article, like “and,” “of,” “with,” or even “the”? What if it got turned into a verb for convenience as a poetic metaphor or trope, then turned into a noun–“being”–and thence into a divine seal of authenticity?–and then became a huge and empty non-issue? Might not “with-ing,” “with-ness,” “of-ing,” “of-ness,” “the-ing,” and “the-ness” easily have turned into similar linguistic junk bonds or credit default swaps?

There is no verb in Chinese for “to be,” “is,” and no noun for “being,” and this great civilization has got on pretty well for the last 4,000 years or so without it. Moreover it is a civilization historically based on poetry–you had to pass a poetry exam to be one of the ruling mandarins–which casts some doubt on Heidegger’s claim that poetry has a special relationship with “being.” Science doesn’t really need the verb “to be”–the equals sign works perfectly well.

So maybe the real value of all this fuss about “being” is as a huge and splendid game, but with darker overtones lent by the European habit of denying authentic “being” to one group of people or another, and then exterminating them.

By Frederick Turner

Professor, poet, lecturer, black belt, and more.

9 replies on “Being and Heidegger”

I had a professor at USM who would not accept a paper with “to be” verbs in it. I have since adopted it for my students — in no small part because “to be” verbs make for loose, sloppy writing (and passive voice). One can certainly write without using “to be” verbs. Might we adopts a poetics sans “to be” verbs and, subsequently, “being”? Might this not make sense for those of us who are thoroughly convinced that only becoming exists and that nature shows only an appearance of being caused by perpetual becoming? In other words, shall we banish “to be” and “being” from our vocabularies? Especially our poetic vocaularies?

Troy–Professors who are not accepting papers with to be verbs in them are just trying to be followers of scripts given to them forty years ago which in essence stated all to-be verbs must be suspect, because we want our language to be expedient, and not necessarily merely human. To be or not to be, Hamlet couldn’t decide; but he meant live or kill.

Fred–Do the Chinese use another word the way we use to be?


Being human is to be human
But are human beings to be
Or to just have been, forever amen?
I am that I am that I am
By any tense just was just for then
And only then, and not again.

T amend and continue:
To be or not to be, Hamlet couldn’t decide; but he meant live or die, or both and surely more too. Can being stand for everything, and when missing from a language stand for nothing? Its absence from language is only slightly limiting on reality–that which exists in a human being’s mind?

I think Troy’s writing exercise might be a revealing and interesting way of getting writers to think about what they are writing. Of course I don’t think we should get rid of all those “be” words–if they’re good enough for Shakespeare, they’re good enough for me. “Is” and “be” and “was” and so on are grand old useful friends in the English language and it would do too much harm to rip them out–a lot of wheat would come up with the tares.

Interestingly, though, they all came from different roots: “is” from words like “yes”, “be” from words meaning “grow” or “become”, “was” from words meaning “dwell” or “stay”. This should be a reminder that our verb “to be” is a wonderful construct or chimera, not a primal apriori–if anything could be or needs to be apriori anyway.

I’m not complaining about the splendid metaphor-making of language, its grammatical inventiveness; I honor it. We would be in trouble if we couldn’t make verbs out of prepositions, nouns and adjectives out of verbs, and so on. But we need to be careful when we do that we aren’t creating something that ain’t so and thinking that it is so.

Chinese and (I am told by a Russian friend) Russian don’t have the verb “to be.” Chinese, I am told, has words like “exist” in the Latin sense of “stand out”–which is what I believe Hamlet meant with “to be or not to be.” Chinese also has “chi”–whose definition looks a lot like the energy of the quantum vacuum–which I believe they might use in some cases to translate “Sein” or “being.”

I’m sure your friend has a far more subtle understanding of Russian than I do, but I was under the impression that Russian ???? was more or less equivalent to Czech být, meaning “to be, to exist.” I think they have very similar pronunciations, and share the same slavic root.

Milan Kundera has some interesting things to say about Hamlet’s speech and the fact that it’s about existence and not about mere living and dying. A dead body still has existence. “Existence or non-existence, that is the question.” Not quite as lovely in its rhythms, to say the least, but it gets at the issue.

It seems unlikely I would get rid of all “to be” verbs myself. But interesting things do happen when you write with such restrictions. I also have my students write a few pages without being able to use any words with the letter E, with interesting results. I’ve written a few poems using that rule. As for the problems with “to be,” perhaps at the very least we need to be much more conscious of the problems with it, and avoid its usage as much as possible, except when we mean it exactly as it really means

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