Critical Theory


Heidegger: Art and Technology


Since the beginning of Western thought the being of beings emerges as what is alone worthy of thought.  If we think this historic development in a truly historical way, then that in which the beginning of Western thought rests first becomes manifest: that in Greek antiquity the being of beings becomes worthy of thought is the beginning of the West and is the hidden source of its destiny.  Had this beginning not safeguarded what has been, i.e., the gathering of what still endures, the being of beings would not now govern from the essence of modern technology.  Through technology the entire globe is today embraced and held fast in a kind of being experienced in Western fashion and represented on the epistemological models of European metaphysics and science. (Heidegger Lögos 76).


1. The Tradition: a series of interpretations that each time transforms ideas but with no memory of the transformation


The rootlessness of Western thinking (the forgetting of being)




Words don’t mean:

1) what they used to mean (that’s not the point of etymology)

2) merely what we think they mean


The importance of the word is its conceptual potential, which includes:

            3) what they might one day mean



            Greek            (hypokeimenon)

            Roman          (subiectum)

            Medieval      (subject)

            Modern        (subject)


Wonder (the question of being)

Ratio and mood



2. The Thing (assaults on the essence of thing):


a)        the bearer of a collection of characteristics (subject with predicates) (5-7)

            b)        aesthesis: a sensory manifold (7-8)

c)        matter and form (form and content) (8-9)




What I want to do here is to present as firm a sense as possible of what Heidegger means by his novel coinages world and earth in the context of his discussion of the artwork and of Dichtung (poetry/literature) in particular.


The pertinent section is “The Thing and the Work” (4-19 in the CUP translation).  Heidegger begins by asking about the “thingliness of the thing.”  The procedure is as ever deceptively simple.  When questioning something with respect to its being we ask what it is in its essence (the catness of a cat, the literariness of literature, the worldness of world, etc.).  We ask in other words what is it (what quality, what attribute) especially that makes something the specific kind of thing it is.  You can see straight away that Heidegger does not follow a classical phenomenological method (it’s not a matter of meditating on the object).  We must pass through the word thing and the linguistic and philosophical clutter that has accumulated around it before we can begin to get a sense of what is at stake in the question. But he is not to start with asking about anything particular.  Even before the question of the artwork he asks the question of the thing.  So he’s asking about the meaning of one of the most general words we have, das Ding, the thing.  “What, in truth, is a thing,” he asks, “insofar as it is a thing?”  It makes some sense, doesn’t it, to proceed in this way?  If you want to know what something is then you’d better already know what is meant by thing.  It is through the concept of thing that Heidegger proceeds to ask the question of the artwork.


Heidegger begins with the things we call things.  It seems at first that nothing is excluded (he mentions, jugs, paths, wells, milk etc., as well as things that fail to appear, like God and the Kantian “thing in itself” or “the world as a totality”).  So according to a philosophical attitude that Heidegger is problematizing, the artwork is regarded also as a “thing.”  He then acknowledges some distinctions.  God, humans and deer (for instance) we would hesitate to call “things.”  In fact “mere thing” is reserved, really, for stones, clods of earth and pieces of wood: “it is the things of nature and usage that are normally called things” (5).  So we end up with a contrast between the broadest domain (everything is a thing) and the narrow region (the mere thing).  Heidegger recommends, at this point, that in order “to be relieved of the tedious effort of making our own inquiry into the thingliness of the thing,” we just need to attend to the traditional knowledge.  In other words, we interpret the existing interpretations. 


There are, broadly, three interpretations of the thingness of the thing:


1.  Substance and Accidents: the core of a thing for the Greeks was its hypokeimenon, its “substance” as we translate it, and its external qualities were its symbebekos, its accidents.  Everything, according to this interpretation has its core (what it is) and its accidents (like my hair and eye colour, for instance).  Heidegger shows that this interpretation constitutes an attack on the thing.  It is worth noting that this first interpretation is the metaphysical interpretation, according to which a thing’s attributes are distinct from its transcendent essence.


2. Aestheton: a thing regarded in its aesthetic qualities, as “the unity of a sensory manifold” (how it tastes, what it looks like, its smell, the way it sounds and how it feels).  Heidegger’s response to this interpretation involves showing that one doesn’t simply ever hear mere sound: “In the house we hear the door slam—never acoustic sensations or mere noises” (8).  It erroneously assumes that what is received by the senses constitutes a thing’s thingness.  The second interpretation is the empirical interpretation.     


3. Form and Matter: If one emphasizes one or other of the first two interpretations the thing disappears (in the first it is too far away from the body and in the second it is too close to it).  The third interpretation, Heidegger suggests, seems to allow the thing “to remain unmolested in its resting-within-itself itself” (8).  In this interpretation the materiality of a thing (its colour, its hardness or softness, its size) is posited at the same time as its form: “The thing is formed matter” (8).  But, says, Heidegger, we should trust this interpretation no more than we can trust the first two, despite the fact that it is this opposition that conventionally guides criticism in the fields concerned with art and literature.


The reason that this last interpretation comes to the fore is because it represents the thing as having been made.  Creation functions in both the biblical sense, according to which God makes the world, and in the modern industrial sense, according to which we make our equipment.  The work is thus regarded from the point of view of the same conceptual system that functions both in medieval theology and modern industry: on the model (on the basis of an interpretation) of the equipmentality of equipment.  Heidegger thus proposes to take a different tack.  Instead of interpreting the artwork on the basis of an interpretation of it as a kind of equipment, he proceeds to interpret the equipmentality of equipment by interpreting an artwork that takes equipment as its topic.  He doesn’t say: Let’s take an example of an artwork and examine it in the light of our interpretation of things as equipment.  He says: Let’s take an example of equipment … as presented by an artwork. 


Something strange and interesting happens.  We learn, first of all, that the truth of equipment is not the matter/form dichotomy (according to which a thing is formed matter) but reliability.  So long is it does what one needs it to then its function is secure. Its usefulness resides in its reliability.  Equipment functions best when we are not even aware that it is functioning at all.  Heidegger builds out of the stark emptiness of the shoes depicted by Van Gogh a sense of the wearer’s everydayness, which the painting—and the painting alone—can suggest, by the fact that it has brought the shoes out of their everyday context and rendered them in relief against it.  So, “in passing,” we have learned what the truth of equipment is because the artwork has taught us this.  In Heidegger’s reading—which is the kind of creative yet controlled projection that requires a confidence that can only be won through practice—the shoes belong to a peasant woman.  The point is to establish the relationship between the appearance, in the painting, of the shoes and the world, not represented as such in the painting, but which can be read from “the dark opening of the well-worn insides of the shoes.”  This is Heidegger’s first mention of the coupling of world and earth.  He says: “This equipment belongs to the earth and finds protection in the world of the peasant woman.  From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself” (14).  The shoes—in this reading—actually play a very precise function.  They are the mediating element between the “world” of the peasant woman (her entire un-theorized existence at work or at rest) and the sphere in which her activities have their meaning and to which they give meaning.  The shoes literally carry world across the earth.  The painting itself plays something like this exact same function.  It mediates between those who gaze at it (in the gaze the painting finds its protection) and the earth on which they tread.  The artwork thus raises to consciousness what otherwise remains unnoticed or at least remains otherwise unremarkable.


If one turns to the following section, “The Work and Truth” (19-33), we find Heidegger expounding on this mediating relationship at greater length with reference to the Greek temple.  Earth is explicitly equated there with the Greek Phúsis (normally translated as “nature”).  But, if the temple gives to its ground the sense of “homeland” or heimatliche Grund, then this is because there is never any independent existence of earth before the separation between the two, between the world (the familiarity of these things that surround us and on which we play out our lives) and the earth (the things themselves): “Men and animals, plants and things, are never present and familiar as unalterable things fortuitously constituting a suitable environment for the temple that, one day, is added to what is present. […] The temple first gives to things their look, and to men their outlook on themselves” (21).  The temple mediates, sure enough, between men and the earth on which they stand, but the mediation is prior to any sense that world and/or earth can have in their separation.  The mediation both separates and brings together the domain reserved on the one hand for things and on the other for meaning.





3. Equipment and equipmentality (usage and purpose) (mere thing = the removal of its serviceability)


An artwork shows …


Vincent Van Gogh




A Pair of Shoes (1887)                                                                                                                                       A Pair of Shoes (1885)
on Canvas, 34 x 41.5cm                                                                                                                              Oil on canvas 37x45cm Van Gogh Museum



The Two Kinds of Truth:

Truth as Correspondence and Aletheia




Ereignis, happening, the event, appropriation



4. Earth and World


            Earth                                                                                                             World

            setting back                                                                                                setting up/setting forth

            that which withdraws from every disclosure                               self-opening openness


[compare also Saussure/Lacan:]


            Signifier (a concept)                                                                                Signified (conceptual potential)


5. Truth


Correspondence (agreement, adequatio)


[the Modern era exemplified by Descartes: Cogito ergo Sum; we can be deceived by 1. senses, 2. established knowledge and 3. ordinary language use; therefore, knowledge must be regarded fundamentally as a kind of judgement (e.g., velocity = distance/time)]                                   


Aletheia (unconcealment) (and strife) (Descartes also unwittingly reveals Aletheia)


The relationship between Correspondence and Aletheia shows how truth as correspondence is dependent on a kind of truth that it cannot comprehend.


“That, as appearance, the being can deceive us is the condition of the possibility of our deceiving ourselves rather than the other way round” (30).


Concealment: obstructing or refusing—the clearing happens as concealment


“Truth is, dialectically speaking, always its opposite as well” (31).




6. The Exhibits


1. The Painting

2. The Temple

3. Poetry (Dichtung) (and the alternative account of language, not as communication but as that which “brings beings as beings into the open” (46)




In 1934 Heidegger began a series of lectures on Friedrich Hölderlin, which would occupy him until the early 1940s.  Hölderlin, the enigmatic German poet and contemporary of Hegel, emerges in Heidegger’s discussions as a resource for his radically alternative exposition of the place of human being in the world.  In 1935 he lectured on “The Origin of the Work of Art”, three successively different versions of which emerged as articles.  The key distinction in the article is between world and earth and the article works through three rather different kinds of artworks.  His reading of Van Gogh’s Shoes shows that art can be regarded neither as merely an aesthetic object designed to give pleasure or to portray beauty, nor as a kind of thing with the addition of aesthetic beauty.  Rather, art discloses the nature of things.  Equipment, unlike art, disguises its status as a thing.  Its material nature is absorbed in its function.  The artwork, however, draws attention to the materials from which it was formed.  The artwork thus draws attention to the struggle between form and matter.  Van Gogh’s painting of shoes shows what would not normally be evident.  The involvement of the shoes in the world of the peasant disappears from view while they are being worn; but put into view, as in Van Gogh’s painting, the shoes reveal that world itself and the relation of that world to the earth.  But what is the earth?  Heidegger shifts his attention to a Greek Temple, partly to underline the fact that his reading of artworks is not based on a model of representation.  The shoes in the Van Gogh example do the work of explication not because of the painting’s naturalistic or evocative qualities.  Rather the role of the shoes as equipment is revealed in an artwork that takes as its topic the medium between the world of the peasant and the earth on which the peasant treads.  (A famous reading of Heidegger’s artwork essay takes him to task rather pedantically by pointing out that the shoes in Van Gogh’s painting were actually his own).  The temple shows how a work of art not only opens up a world but also unifies and structures the world of a historical people.  In doing so it contextualizes the earth upon which it stands, instituting a particular interpretation of the relationship between the cultural contrivances of Dasein and the natural world with which those contrivances are engaged.  Finally, Heidegger turns to what he calls Dichtung, which in its fully etymological sense means invention.  The ordinary and the everyday is made strange in art, revealing the struggle between the newness of art and the state of things out of which it had to have emerged.  The meaning of Dichtung in the normal sense is, of course, poetry.  Because the matter or earth of poetry is language and because language is what gives Dasein names for beings, then poetry has the power of addressing the possibility of human communications and relations.  The relationship between world and earth, when it takes the form of linguistic innovation, reveals the torturous ways in which the relations between concepts and words are formed and form each other.  Poetry can thus be grasped as the most essential kind of artwork because it performs an absolutely singular intervention that is also a form of disclosing.  Poetry reveals the conditions on which not only artworks but all other kinds of communicating and all other kinds of thing are possible at all.  For this reason Heidegger increasingly privileges Dichtung in his works of this period and later.  The disclosing of being—if it is to be achieved in any way that eludes the classifying, calculating procedures of modernity—must be an evidently singular event each time.






One might always try this (at home!) with similar architectural sites, like the Roman Coliseum (or Colloseum).


The Coliseum


The Colloseum


E. A. Poe’s “Coliseum





Loy (Lunar Baedecker)









For we are as tree-trunks in the snow. They appear to lie flat on the surface and with a little push one should be able to set them rolling. No, one cannot, for they are firmly fixed to the ground. But look, even that is mere appearance. (Franz Kafka).










Der Blinde Junge

Mina Loy

The dam Bellona


her eyeless offspring


upon the pavements of Vienna


Sparkling precipitate

the spectral day


the visionless obstacle


this slow blind face

pushing its virginal nonentity

against the light


Pure purposeless eremite

of centripetal sentience


Upon the carnose horologe of the ego

the vibrant tendon index moves not


since the black lightening desecrated

the retinal altar


Void and extinct

this planet of the soul

strains from the craving throat

in static flight upslanting


A downy youth's snout

nozzling the sun

drowned in dumfounded instinct



illuminati of the coloured earth

How this expressionless "thing"

blows out damnation and concussive dark


Upon a mouth-organ







Martin Heidegger (life and work): an intellectual biography by John Phillips—you will find a tighter version in Twentieth-Century European Cultural Theorists (second Series), ed. Paul Hansom, DLB vol. 296.


Recommended References

Michael Inwood. Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 1997).

Timothy Clark. Martin Heidegger (London: Routledge, 2002).

Richard Polt. Heidegger: An Introduction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

Julian Young. Heidegger’s Later Philosophy (Cambridge: CUP, 2002).