Heidegger on What it Means to Dwell

In the age of technocratic-capitalist rootlessness and obsession with sheer will, might we human beings rediscover what it means to dwell?

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Hello folks, here is a well-written piece from Brian Rogers on Heidegger's concept of dwelling.

I do hope Brian writes that essay on the similarities between Plato and Heidegger. Besides that, the last paragraph is very well organized and concise in summary.    

Dwell well, my friends.


Heidegger on What it Means to Dwell

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Heidegger on What it Means to Dwell

"...Poetically Man Dwells..." is the title of one of Heidegger's many writings on the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. In his 1951 essay, Heidegger derives the title phrase from the poet's "In Lovely Blue" (In lieblicher Bläue). The full lines runs as follows: Voll Verdienst, doch dichterisch, wohnet der Mensch auf dieser Erde. (Full of merit, yet poetically, man dwells on this earth.) Dwelling (wohnen) became a central concept in Heidegger's later work, written during the post-War housing crisis in Europe. And, while Hölderlin's authorship of this particular poem has been disputed, this fact alone does not detract from Heidegger's phenomenological concept, which I hope to elucidate in this essay. I will do so, not in the way of conventional exegesis, i.e. of citing and unpacking source texts; instead, I will engage in phenomenological analysis in an attempt to show just how that which Heidegger calls dwelling is central to the human condition. Heidegger's work forms the backbone or framework of my analyses here.

Translator’s Note: from “In Lovely Blue” by … | Poetry Magazine
My translation is based on the opening verses of a longer poem whose authenticity has been disputed, though Heidegger lists the poem as a central work in Hölderlin’s oeuvre. A...

What does it mean to dwell? The uses of the term in English, as in German, are several. Animals of different sorts dwell in burrows, holes, dams and other sorts of shelters. Likewise, humans have their own kinds of shelters: houses, apartments, condos and the like. But it can also be said that we humans dwell in towns and cities. Some of us are country dwellers; others, urban dwellers. Dwelling is not, then, primarily a matter of shelter, as it has also to do with locale. Moreover, we often speak of attentiveness and contemplation in terms of dwelling. One might dwell on a good book or blueprints to a house. In these instances, the importance of one's outward surroundings seems to vanish in favour of an inward sort of concentration, i.e. upon matters of thought or ponderance. Finally, we sometimes use the language of dwelling to denote a sort of lingering presence. In certain religious contexts, one might hear it said that God or the Spirit dwells among us. This sort of lingering is neither purely "inside" nor purely "outside"; rather, it is the sense of an all-pervasiveness that transforms one's own response both to the world and oneself.

At the very least, then, these are some of the senses of what it means to dwell. Dwelling can be the seeking of shelter, the residing in a locale, the state of attentiveness or contemplation, or a lingering (and possibly transformative) presence. These are all possibilities of experience. That is to say, no one can plausibly deny that he is at least in principle open to each of them insofar as he exists. I anticipate that some readers might have no problem accepting the first three definitions but remain stuck on the fourth. What could it mean to say that one who self-identifies as non-religious is in principle open to the possibility of sensing the lingering presence of the divine? Yet, this is no more mysterious than the claim that the same person is in principle open to an experience of music. Regardless of one's metaphysical views as to the origins or purposes of music, in the presence of its beauty one can acknowledge that music has a lingering presence by the fact that one is taken up into it. As I listen to the symphony, I find myself carried away in a kind of ecstasy. The real presence of the music is to be found by me in my response to its melodies and harmonies, as my body begins to sway, my fingers tap, or my mind soars in contemplation. Those of us who are "non-musical" when it comes to religion can at least in principle acknowledge that this same sort of experience is possible when it comes to a sense of the divine, regardless of one's metaphysical or doctrinal views on the matter.

Even if we cannot plausibly deny the possibility, perhaps even the necessity, of these forms of dwelling to the human condition, still we have not yet arrived in our phenomenological analysis at the essence of what it means to dwell. Is there a unifying principle to be found in these disparate forms? And, would such a principle enable us to discover the ontologically most fundamental sort of dwelling? Let us take the phenomenon of shelter-building as our clue and starting point. As we know, just as various non-human animals must work to find shelter, so human beings must carve out their places of domicile. No one is without a place to be, not even those tagged with the unfortunate, bourgeoise term "homeless". Even one without a house or apartment for shelter finds a place to dwell. Such a place, no less than the house, is brought about by human effort and is, properly speaking, a domicile. All of that is to say that human beings do not dwell only because they build places of residence. They build places of residence - houses, apartments and other shelters - because first and foremost human beings are the kinds of creatures who dwell. (We are also inherently social in our dwelling, relying on one another for subsistence, but I will bracket this consideration for now.) Dwelling, here, does not mean primarily residing, even in the context of shelter-dwelling. To reside is to be situated somewhere. But to find shelter in a home is not merely to reside. It is to belong to a place.

Here we have a phenomenological clue as to the essence of dwelling in the concept of belonging. I do not merely reside in my house. I belong in this place. It is my home, though it was no doubt home to several families before me, as the structure itself was built in 1929. To be sure, the house brings me and my family shelter. It contains our personal belongings and keeps them from the elements. It is also a roof over my own head, as the saying goes. The house facilitates my movements throughout my place of dwelling and even makes them possible in a certain way. The way I move about through this environment, its familiarity to me - the stair rail in my grip, the door handles, the placement of various items in my kitchen - is distinctively different from the way I navigate other, less familiar places. I am at home here. This does not mean merely that the house shelters me, i.e. that I find my longing for home satisfied here. Rather, it is also that the house has been taken up entirely into my relation to it. Far from merely containing me, the house is an extension of my own dwelling in the world. I could be displaced from it; a war or some kind of tyranny could ensue, but this does not negate the fact that the house is my place.

In short, human beings reside in shelters only because first and foremost they are the kinds of beings who dwell. That is to say, human beings belong to a place and long for home. Yet, home is more than just the place where one resides. We can recognize in this notion of belonging the wider sense of dwelling in place discussed above. I dwell in a city. This, too, is my place of belonging. The region of southwestern Ontario, Canada where I live and grew up is also a place of dwelling for me. I have grown accustomed to its landscape, culture, language and idioms, norms and ways of life. Even the laws of the land of my birth in a certain respect belong to me as the laws guiding my dwelling in the world. If I were to visit another country with quite different laws, no doubt I would have to become accustomed, not just to alternative rules to those I am used to, but to quite a different way of understanding the world and my place in it. Of course, it is in principle possible that I could become accustomed to a different way of understanding the world, but that is possible only because I am the kind of being who dwells, one of the characteristics being the search for a place of belonging.

 Dwelling is the condition also of welcoming. I could not be welcomed into another part of the world with quite a different language, culture and set of laws if it were not the case that those welcoming me already dwell in such a place. Without dwelling, there would be no place into which the foreigner or stranger could be welcomed. Place is not abstract space. It is not reducible to systems of coordinates on a grid. I cannot welcome someone to a mathematical projection. The act of welcoming is a decision to bring another into what promises to be a situation of qualitative uniqueness, having as it does the mark of home and belonging. All of this is to say that dwelling is not merely spatial in character. It has a temporal structure.

The phenomena of welcoming and belonging are clues to the temporality of dwelling if indeed the former are structural aspects of the latter. Neither welcoming nor belonging is merely a matter of place. Or, better put, the place to which one might be welcomed or to which one might belong is nothing purely spatial. The world of farming and cultivation may serve to illustrate the matter. One who cultivates the land becomes intimately familiar with the rhythms and seasons of nature in a way that most of us urban dwellers do not. The farmer must depend on the sending-forth of the rain or the long periods of sunshine and heat in the summer for the gift of a good harvest at the right time. She does not herself "produce" the crop in the sense of having anything to do directly with the life that springs forth from the earth. The farmer's work of cultivation is a sort of abetting of this life, not its creation. Put in terms of the old Aristotelian language of causality, the farmer is the efficient cause of the crop, not its formal or final cause. As such, she must work with the particular land and climate to which she belongs, learn its contours and patterns. In this respect, she belongs to it and welcomes what it might bring forth.

To belong to a place is, as our imaginary farmer illustrates, to dwell in it temporally. It is presently to have been in a place and to anticipate where one will be. The root of this temporal belonging is a kind of receptivity. One trusts that he will find a place of belonging, or that the place in which he finds himself will prove to be the occasion for enjoyment or fulfillment. It will be where one finds his home. If this is the case, then the place of belonging is already identical to the place wherein one finds his welcome. It is not just a home into which one can welcome others. To belong is already to be welcomed, to find oneself welcome in a place that has been and promises to remain open as the beginnings of one's search for the good life. To bring into view the temporal structure of our experience of place, of dwelling, is simultaneously to discern a relational structure in it. To be human is to receive the gift of oneself wrapped in the gift of place and everything brought forth in place.

We are now positioned to glimpse phenomenologically the inner relation between the first and latter two senses of dwelling noted above. How do human beings dwell in the places of their belonging? They do so by receiving the welcome of the gift of being, i.e. by finding in that which makes itself present or known traces of what has been and what promises to be. To be sure, these traces can be ignored and forgotten to some extent, in which case humanity finds itself drawn further and further into a longing for sheer presence. Big agribusiness can, for example, forge machines that enable us to defy contours of the earth and the patterns of the climate in favour of the ever-present demand for more, now. Cities can arise "naturally" in response to the landscape and be almost an extension of the latter. Conversely, cities can be monstrosities of light and noise, suburban sprawl and hideous modern buildings whose purpose seems to be to dwarf humanity and the natural world. The latter discloses to us our obsession with pure function and ceaseless activity, a kind of will to make ourselves ever-present through constant work and consumption.

Accordingly, there are different ways in which we as humans can think. One way can pull us into the ever-widening gulf of nihilism wherein we find only the impetus to calculate. In our frenzied calculations, we sum up, not only the worth, but the very being of the places we inhabit, the creatures we discover, and even ourselves. A house is not a place of contemplative dwelling. It is a domicile to be reckoned with and sold to the highest bidder. Its ontological value is determined by a combination of the abstraction we call the "housing market" and the idea that a home buyer with means will enjoy "what it has to offer". Every facet has been calculated, reckoned with, summed up, brought into view, noted and recorded. All has been made present and readily available. This sort of calculative rationality belongs only to a present, increasingly stripped of any lingering sense of the gift of being. Its measure is the will that finds only in things the further impetus to willing, to the exclusion of every sense of belonging, welcoming, receiving, gifting. Even with the proliferation of "housing" in our times, humanity may very well find itself increasingly homeless, uprooted, alienated from its essence.

   If it is the case that we find ourselves without a place of belonging in our times, this has to do, not with the loss of space, but with the lapse of contemplation. I mean this is in the etymological sense of the word. The Latin term contemplatio denotes a kind of stretching. The stretching could be oriented to place (i.e. before the altar, as in the Roman templum), or to a kind of intentionality of the soul, stretched as it is between past and future. The latter sense is related to the older Greek notion of theoria, according to which the soul fixes upon the definitively meaningful and unchanging which holds sway across temporal flux and change. (Even  the notion of theoria applied to the Greek games - the original use of the term - conveyed the idea that the gods, i.e. beings more permanent than mortals, were on display.) In our age, human dwelling no longer seems to carry with it the sense of permanency which we, nonetheless, still long for.

Perhaps our very longing for permanency is the problem. But, then again, perhaps not. Heidegger's analysis of contemplation or "theory" is complex. True, his diagnosis of the history of Western thought follows Nietzsche to some extent in finding in our idealizing of the life of contemplation the seeds of a nihilism that works itself out through the ages as each "god" falls prey to the will to power that it simultaneously masks and manifests. (It does one in virtue of the other.) Yet, according to Heidegger, contemplation or the life of theory (bios theoretikos) runs deeper than the claims of a rogue rationality. And in each epoch of human history, there were those thinkers and contemplatives, Meister Eckhart for example, who sought the eternal in the temporal without thereby becoming fixated on false substitutes. The eternal is the "gift" of being, already disseminated at the origin in all that manifests itself singularly in its particular, concrete existence. The contemplative finds himself "given" alongside the manifestation of things and given over in a kind of thinking attunement to meditation on their origin.

At heart, this is what it means for humanity to dwell on anything of particular importance. If we find ourselves always belonging to a place that welcomes us - or not, in the case of its noticeable absence - that is not merely the result of an earth that sustains us or a sky that sends forth its blessings in due season. We are able to belong to a place because our contemplative nature holds us open to pondering the "limits" of our own mortality and of meaning. As mortal my life is stretched along temporally between the occasions of birth and death, possibilities for my "being" that I can never or could never have truly experienced but which put all other possibilities in context. I am who I am because of my birth into a family, nation, culture, tradition, etc., which I may grow into and which gives shape to my sense of myself. I could not have experienced the moment of my birth, but this moment was the condition of my having received and continuing to receive these historical gifts of belonging. Moreover, my impending death, another one of my possibilities for being that I cannot experience - and which cannot be outstripped in this life - punctuates every actual experience of mine with a sense of the absolute gratuity of life. All that I have and am I have received; it comes to me because I am finite, as my death reminds me.

The other limit of which I spoke was that of meaning itself. If humanity dwells on the earth, under the sky, and as mortal, it also dwells in light of the promise of enduring significance. It is here that Heidegger is not so far afield of Plato as he imagines himself to be; though, he rejects the latter's doctrine of the forms. Instead of perduring intellectual realities, we have divine messengers, signals or signs whose beckoning alerts us to the giftedness of our existence. (Again, I do not think that this is too far off Plato's actual philosophy, but that's a discussion for another essay.) Even those who are decidedly non-religious could not plausibly deny the fact that the intelligibility of the cosmos or the universe announces itself. To say that the universe is intelligible and that we ourselves invent this intelligibility from nothing would be to utter nonsense, unless we are prepared to argue that we invent the universe, including ourselves. (That some, i.e. certain kinds of transhumanists, make this insane claim is no evidence against the phenomenological argument that it is, in fact, an insane claim.) To admit, then, that nature is at least to some extent intelligible and that this intelligibility is intuited or discerned, albeit in and through works of invention that are inseparable from said discernment, it to acknowledge some kind of ontological structure by which we as agents of intelligence receive meaning. Pre-modern beliefs in gods, nature spirits, etc. were no more irrational or superstitious than our modern habits of believing in other kinds of "natural" forces able to convey meaning to us.

All of this is to say that at bottom there must be some transcendental horizon of intelligibility for the world and the universe to make sense. Human dwelling of pre-modern epochs held fast to an idea of God or the Good as the horizon from which all things derived their being, in which all things continually participated, and toward which all things tended in their purpose. Our own age has not lost the sense that this sort of transcendental horizon is structurally necessary to human existence, though our shared sense of its meaning has either collapsed or fragmented into a thousand views, as Charles Taylor argues. Despite the fragmentation, we have not entirely lost the sense, at least generally speaking, that there is an all-pervasive goodness in human dwelling, that human life is somehow intrinsically worthwhile, that it can find fulfillment or that such fulfillment can be granted it if only the right pathway is to be found.

We have drawn out the inner connection of our four senses of dwelling - shelter, locale, thinking and a lingering sense of the absolute and unconditional within the relative and contingent - by way of a phenomenological analysis. We have examined the temporal structure of human dwelling by way of the concepts of belonging and welcoming, and have come to terms with the reasoning behind Heidegger's idea of the fourfold gift of being, i.e. of earth, sky, mortality and divinity. We have understood that, while we humans can never not be the kinds of creatures who dwell, our dwelling can become impoverished as we become forgetful of the gift of being. However, it remains to be understood just what the ultimate measure of this dwelling amounts to. It might be true phenomenologically that these structures of dwelling are undeniable, but that gives us no certainty as to the way forward. How is humanity to rediscover its path of belonging to the earth and sky? How can humanity re-learn its mortality and dependency upon the divine? In the words of Hölderlin, "Full of merit, yet poetically, man dwells on this earth."

I think the deepest point of Heidegger's thinking is his rediscovery of the inner relation of thinking and poetry. If human existence is an ecstatic "stretching" of temporal being wherein one finds a "place" of belonging in the "having been" and "still to be" of the present; moreover, if this temporal structure is at heart a kind of thinking (Denken) that acknowledges the gift of being; still, humanity must find a word to point it back toward its essence. Humanity is full of merit - already full of the gift of being, the intrinsically good - yet its mode of receiving this gift and so of dwelling is poetic. Poetry does not mean mere poesy (as in the written poem), but refers instead to the Greek idea of poiesis, i.e. the activity of making. This is the sort of "making" one finds in the very spontaneity of nature, where one thing may become another. The seed becomes the plant. Sure, we may have sundry scientific explanations as to how that phenomenon is possible, about how the elements of the seed lend themselves to the growth of the plant, but no one truly could explain just how growth takes place. The entire phenomenon is a profound mystery, and our attempts to understand it by examining the mechanisms and organs of growth only sharpen our profound sense of wonder at it all. The more we know, the more deeply mysterious nature becomes. The more we dwell on things, the more we must search for new forms of poetry to articulate a better sense of the whole gift of being and our place of belonging to it.

To say that human beings dwell poetically is to say that their mode of being is at root just as spontaneous as that of the blooming flower or the sprouting seed. This is not to say, however, that it is arbitrary or morally senseless, as the momentum of a rock rolling down a hill, for instance. To the contrary, to say that human intentionality is full of the same mysterious power of bringing forth or dissemination that we witness in all of reality is to say that our activities of building and cultivating are not just as fully natural as the tree's growth but indeed integrate these other expressions "artistically" into one orientation toward the absolute. To dwell poetically as humanity is to find in our collective and individual experiences of the world "currents" of the influx of nature that can be brought to full, personal expression in culture, even if the latter remains ultimately natural, that is to say, "given". The impersonal expressions of the natural world become the site of our personal, human expressions of belonging and welcoming.

Nature is already poetry. But "poetry" in the narrower sense of artistic creation, including the technical arts of building and cultivating, is the heart of human dwelling insofar as it brings the mysterious power of granting and making into personal expression, especially through the phenomena of belonging and welcoming. Those who devote their art exclusively to the manifestation of this phenomenon, i.e. the "poets" of finer artistic expression and especially the written word, are the guides of humanity. They signal the power of making present, manifest intentionally, albeit always indirectly, the power of manifestation. Poets are, therefore, the guides of thinking, insofar as the latter dwells too on the mystery of disclosure. There is no hope for any culturally renewed sense of the ultimate horizon of our collective longing without poetic guidance. Alternatively, we may well be condemned to the barbaric anti-poetry of domination and control.

I would add to and perhaps qualify Heidegger's analyses by suggesting a return to the mystical Judaic, Neoplatonic and medieval Christian sources from which his philosophy so liberally borrows, anyway. It is perhaps the subject of another essay to question the coherence of the idea of an absolute gift without an equally absolute donating source, even if (as in the mystical traditions) the gift is its own source and the source, its own gift. In other words, we might question the extent to which a more robust metaphysics of donation via the mediation of a transcendent source in all things is required to sustain a non-nihilistic account of nature and being. However strong these objections may be, Heidegger's account of human dwelling as poetic is helpful nonetheless. It reminds us of our shared longing and need for belonging ultimately in light of the gift-character of being.

In the age of technocratic-capitalist rootlessness and obsession with sheer will, might we human beings rediscover what it means to dwell?

Brian Wayne Rogers, PhD - planksip
Brian earned a PhD in philosophy at the University of Guelph, Ontario. His areas of research interest are phenomenology, existentialism and the philosophy of religion.
Brian Wayne Rogers, PhD

Published 10 days ago