Heidegger’s Clearing or Lighting

John W P Phillips



[This is to follow up on some observations I had about a few particular elements that began to emerge during the excellent presentations of Sarah, Calvin, and Weiquan, and which I feel deserve to be underlined a bit: the scene from The Matrix (and my speculative impression of an echo from Plato’s Republic) that Weiquan showed us and Weiquan’s remarks about Heidegger’s Holzwege; the questions Calvin asked about “Clearing”; and Sarah’s exposition of the passage about the temple.  I just want to add some further context].


“Clearing” (in the English version most of us are using) translates Lichtung.  “In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs.  There is a clearing.”  The German, eine Lichtung ist (literally “a clearing is”), indeed conventionally suggests the kind of clearing one finds in the woods or the forest, where the density of branches and/or brambles have been thinned out or, literally, “lightened.”  The word once meant “lighting” in a different sense (as in the brightness of the sun or an electric light), through its link with the word Licht, which does mean “light.”  Heidegger is (characteristically) reaching back into the German language to resuscitate the older sense along with the one that has taken over from it: the Lichtung is to be understood both in the sense of clearing (trees and forest density made lighter) and in the sense of shedding light on something (making something more easily seen).  The English language also maintains this link (a light is linked etymologically to the sense of something being e.g., as light as a feather).  So an alternative translation (which has been used) would be “Lighting.” 



Plato’s Cave

The connection between The Matrix and Plato’s analogy of the cave (Republic book 7—see link here: Cave) can be further supported by several of Heidegger’s lecture courses that refer to the Plato passage.  In The Basic Problems of Metaphysics (from 1927—the year Being and Time was published) Heidegger recounts Plato’s analogy.  He says: “Man’s existence, living on the disc of earth arched over by the sky, is like a life in the cave.  All vision needs light, although the light is not itself seen.  The Dasein’s coming into the light means its attainment of the understanding of truth in general” (284/403).  Most people take as actuality just what the Lichtung makes it possible for them to see.  To see the Lichtung itself, however, is to see the very conditions of possibility for the illusion (hence the analogy with The Matrix).  Heidegger puts it like this:

If the cave dwellers were to see more clearly for all eternity only what they now see on the wall, they would never gain the insight that it is only shadows.  The basic condition for the possibility of seeing the actual as actual is to look into the sun, so that the eye of knowledge would become sunlike.  Ordinary common sense, in the cave of its know-it-all, wiseacre pretensions, is narrow minded; it has to be extricated from its cave” (285/404).

The analogy in The Matrix substitutes computer programming and its algorithms for Plato’s sun (which represents analogically the Platonic theory of forms) but it functions in the same way.  Out of interest we could note that the sun is a centre (it is at the centre of the universe) that surrounds beings (it sheds its light on them). Anyway, in context, the artwork would be the event of the un-concealment of the Lighting.


Temporality: the Possibility of Repetition

At that stage in Heidegger’s thinking time was the answer.  Time is the centre that surrounds us (to pursue this paradoxical formulation of a centre of the circle outside the circle).  But what kind of a thing is time?  The question of Dasein’s being reveals first of all a temporal dimension but, as with all ontological categories, time itself must be subjected to a mode of questioning that brings to light not the what of time but the how.  How does time surround us?  Time is to be regarded not in the conventional terms as contained in the present or lost in the past but as a phenomenon primarily of the future: “the fundamental phenomenon of time is the future” (The Concept of Time 14).  In Heidegger’s analysis the present is nothing but a possibility of repetition.  Nothing could ever live up to such a possibility without a permanently futural and thus indeterminate element.  The Future is thus glossed as “the possibility of repetition” and simultaneously as Dasein (The Concept of Time 20-21).  The futural dimension of time—as Dasein—allows a consideration of history in terms of its always indeterminate historicity—the futural dimension again.  Dasein determines its present by “running ahead to the certain yet indeterminate past” (The Concept of Time 20).  What all this means is that in order to make something of ourselves (become something) we must utilize the as yet undetermined future to repeat and revise something of our past: hence all the emphasis on reading and interpretation.  We could then say that the clearing (Lichtung/lighting) operates for Heidegger as the future: it is simultaneously central and surrounds us.  Sounds like Singapore, doesn’t it?  We are the future.


What he means is that if we live all the time in the present then this gives rise to the sense of never having enough time (it is characterized by incessant business—or busy-ness).  If, on the contrary, we live in the future of our activities then we are given time for what absorbs us, without needing to think of ending or completion (the deadline is a phenomenon of the present rather than of the future).