Heidegger and St. Thomas: Language, being, and transcendence
Heidegger and St. Thomas:
Language, Being, and Transcendence
Christopher Ryan Maboloc
Language, according to Martin Heidegger, is the house of Being (BW, 193). It is the place where Being presents itself to Dasein (There-Being); Dasein is the place whereby Being makes itself accessible to man. Language, in this sense, is constitutive of man’s being-in-the-world (RH, 357). Dasein, as a mode of being-in-the-world, has the fundamental character of thrownness. By being thrown into the world, Dasein is the very place whereby the Being of beings becomes manifest. Metaphysics, says Heidegger, is the basic occurrence of Dasein (BW, 112). For Heidegger, Dasein dwells on the disclosure of Being through the nothing (the unsaid in speech), which stands as its groundless ground and source of meaning. The nothing, Heidegger, says, makes possible the openness of beings (BW, 105). This openness comes to us through language, for Being “is perpetually under way to language (BW, 239).”
St. Thomas, on the other hand, views language differently. Language, for him, is the means whereby the reality of being as the ultimate cause of all beings is made known to the human intellect. According to John Caputo, St. Thomas understands language as an activity of men, to be mastered and perfected like any other craft and not as a response to the address of Being (OM, 165). For St. Thomas, the reality of Being does not unfold in language; instead, through language, the reality of being is affirmed through causal participation. The unity in one source through causality is an alien concept to Heidegger. The latter recognized the immanent unity of Being in beings, but to leave this unity as a mere fact without a ground is unfinished business (KF, 54).
Heidegger’s understanding of language does not account for the ultimate root of the intrinsic act of existence.
Martin Heidegger: Language and Being
Heidegger’s analysis of the problem of Being is out of his fascination with the word “is.” The question of Being, Heidegger says, is something we keep within the understanding of the “is,” though we are unable to fix conceptually what that “is” signifies (BT, 6). The word “is,” therefore, expresses and opens up the issue in his metaphysics of language – the issue is Being. Magda King says that if the “is” were missing from our language, there would be no other word and no language at all (HP, 28). Language is an event that has Being as its ultimate origin, a house that is arranged according to a pattern inscribed and prescribed by it (PT, 535). This means that Being makes manifest the presence of beings through language. Being therefore reveals the truth of beings through language. Now, without the “is” in language, language would be meaningless for it wouldn’t express any truth, for there would be nothing in language that will reveal that being is and not nothing. The “is” in language presents the reality of beings, that they are beings and not nothing.
It is recorded that Heidegger’s quest for the meaning of Being was inspired by Franz Brentano’s On the Manifold Meanings of Beings for Aristotle. Aristotle understands Being as ousia, which refers to the active concrete and changing substance, actualized by form. Aristotle rejects the abstract world of forms of Plato and considered the particular entities in the world as the really real. To be real therefore means to be substance or to be an attribute of a substance (CH, 45). For Aristotle, substances form the structure of the world. They are objective and independent existing entities. But Aristotle’s explication of substance as the real deals with beings, not Being. In the sense, Aristotle bypasses Being. But Heidegger says that we sense more in things than mere substance and accidents for things are closer to us than the sensations that announce them (PT, 440). Aristotle has examined beings in his metaphysics but was oblivious to the fact that they are the manifestations of Being. Aristotle, therefore, is oblivious to Being.
Furthermore, Aristotle defines language as a sound that signifies something (RH, 363), and this means that he is not aware of the role language in the disclosure of Being. Aristotle is ignorant of the radical role that language plays in the disclosure of beings. According to Heidegger, Being comes to man’s awareness because man belongs to language. Thus, he says, it is the home where man dwells (BW, 193). This belongingness means that of all existing beings only man can question Being. And the reason for this, according to Heidegger, is that human existence means standing in the lighting of Being (BW, 204). For Heidegger, human existence thoughtfully dwells in the house of Being (BW, 239). Dasein, by being thrown into the world, lives in this house. Dwelling in the house of Being enables man to speak of a world. Henceforth, it is language that makes the world a world for man, a world where his possibilities are realized. To speak of the world, then, means to speak of Being. Man, by being-in-the-world, stands in front of Being. Thus, man as Dasein bears witness to Being, gives voice to Being (KF, 53).
What is the difference between St.Thomas’ and Heidegger’s conception of Being?
Being for St. Thomas is not the lighting up process but the ipsum esse subsistens that renders beings their being by way of causal participation. Language for St. Thomas addresses Being in a different way. For St. Thomas, every being (ens) is a being insofar as it participates in esse. Being for St. Thomas is the cause of the act of existence in beings. This distinction between Being as ipsum esse subsistens and beings as ens is closely related to Heidegger’s distinction between Being and beings. The reason for this, according to Caputo, is that ens derives its meaning from esse. A being is a being insofar as it is referred to the act of existing which in its unparticipated state is pure act. St. Thomas, then, Caputo says, cannot be accused of oblivion of the ontological difference between Being and beings.
Caputo accuses St. Thomas of conceiving language as something that is in no way related to the problem of being. The point that we wish to consider here is that St. Thomas’s concern on language was not alethiological but analogical. This will be the contention that we shall try to develop. The significance of the explication of this stand opens up an inadequacy in Heidegger’s conception of language and points to a basic difference between his thought and that of St. Thomas: that, for St. Thomas, Being is the ultimate source of all reality; whereas, for Heidegger, Being simply means the lighting up of what is there.
For Heidegger, it is through the nothing that the openness of the meaning of beings is revealed. But, as we will point out later on, nothingness reveals the reality of human finitude but never enters into the deeper context of answering the ultimate source of the meaning of human existence. Nothingness opens up the possibilities of human finitude but never addresses man’s hunger for the ultimate reason of his existence. Nothingness only tells man that he is a being and not nothing. But it never answers why. Language, in this regard, reveals the reality that Dasein is, but only that.
The Nothing in Language
What is in language that allows the possibility of saying? If language is the place where Being comes into light, then there must be something in language that allows this coming-into-presence and self-concealing as its source or ground. For Heidegger, in the very instance of whatever is said, a hidden plenitude is left unsaid (TT, 172). This plenitude enables the possibility of saying. This plenitude refers to the nothing, the unsaid in speech, which “presuppose the possibility of saying, of disclosing (RH, 358),” Heidegger says,
The nothing comes to be the name for the source not only of all that is dark and riddlesome in existence which seems to rise from nowhere to return to it but also of the openness of Being as such and the brilliance surrounding whatever comes to light (BW, 93).
This nothing is the veil of Being (HP, 11). Ancient metaphysics, according to Heidegger, conceives the nothing in the sense of non-being, that is, unformed matter, matter that cannot take form as an informed being (BW, 109). Thus, for a long time, metaphysics exposes the nothing to only one meaning: ex nihilo nihil fit – from the nothing, nothing comes to be (BW, 109). But Being and nothingness belong together, for Heidegger says, “the Nothing functions as Being” (WM, 353). What does this mean?
For Heidegger, the Nothing is an abyss, the groundless source of meaning where the reality of beings is made manifest. He says, “ if man is to find himself again into the nearness of Being, he must first learn to exist in the nameless” (BW, 199). The nameless is the silence in speech. Silence presupposes the fact that one has something to say. But science and mathematics, according to Heidegger, have dismissed the nothing as meaningless. Science gives up the nothing as a nullity. Thus, he states that, for these two fields what should be examined are beings and, besides that, nothing; beings alone, and further nothing; solely beings and beyond that, nothing (BW, 97). Science rejects the nothing precisely because scientific language requires methodical objectivity. The scientist sees the nothing as empty, as something that is devoid of any objective sense. Thus, for the scientific discipline, the silence of the nothing does not say anything.
But silence is not all silence. Silence says something. What silence reveals is the possibility of saying something about what still remains hidden. Being, says Heidegger, is encountered in this silence. But where can we find this silence? Heidegger says that:
If the nothing itself is to be questioned as we have been questioning it, then it must be given beforehand. We must be able to encounter it (BW, 100).
The nothing, according to Heidegger, reveals itself in anxiety (BW, 103). Anxiety makes us silent, so that because of anxiety all we have to say falls silent, making the reality of beings slip away. But what is anxiety? Anxiety, Heidegger says, is not a kind of grasping of the nothing (BW, 104). Anxiety refers to the state of mind that brings man to the indeterminate possibilities of his existence. In speech, this state of mind points to the indeterminate possibilities of saying. What anxiety reveals to us is that through the nothing the reality of beings comes into light, that they are beings and not nothing. Anxiety, then, opens up the meaningfulness of beings. Henceforth, the dismissal by science of the nothing implies its annihilation of the Being of beings. The rejection of the unsaid in language means the dismissal of the meanings still concealed in such silence.
An instance of being held out into the nothing in speech occurs when one travels to a far place and bids goodbye to a beloved. During this anxious moment, one say goodbye and the girl says nothing, remains silent. But this silence makes the openness of Being of the girl. Her silence reveals that there is something in her that she wants to say. Her silence discloses something about her. Her silence means something. Her silence captures her Being as a girl who is in love with someone who will be leaving her. Her silence opens up what the departure means to her and to their relationship. Thus, ex nihilo omne ens qua ens fit (from the nothing all beings as being come to be) (BW, 110).
St. Thomas Aquinas: Being and Analogy
Language for St. Thomas addresses the question of Being in a manner different from that of Heidegger. St. Thomas’s metaphysical inquiry on language begins with the question “Can we use any words to refer to God?” (ST, q. 13, art. 1). Language, for St. Thomas, acts as a bridge that enables man to discover a metaphorical insight into Being. What is grasped is only metaphorical because man does not have a direct knowledge of Being. As we will show later on, all of our knowledge of Being is only by way of negation (AR, 139). We know through God’s effects that God is, and that God is the cause of other beings, that God is super-eminent over other things and set apart from all (SCG, I, 30, no.4). Thus, when we say, “God is good” what we mean is that “God is good, but not in the way we are.” St. Thomas’s concern, then, knows how, for instance, goodness can be predicted literally of God. To say “God is good” means that goodness as a perfection is present in man but only in a finite way; God as the ultimate source of this perfection is infinitely good. Any knowledge of God can be based only on metaphorical resemblance with beings as His effects.
But first, what does God as being mean for St. Thomas? We have seen in Heidegger that Being is the Being of beings that makes them manifest. The metaphysics of St. Thomas, on the other hand, is a metaphysics of causality which takes into account the causal relationship between Beings and beings. This is something alien to Heidegger. For St. Thomas, Being is the ipsum esse subsistens that renders beings their esse or existence. Thus, his metaphysics is a metaphysics of creation, which makes esse the most fundamental act that gives beings their principle of existence. It is esse that makes beings be. In this sense, Being is the ultimate source of all beings. Henceforth, beings are beings by virtue of their participation in esse. And Being, as the unlimited source of existence, is present in all beings, not as part of the essence or nature of beings, but as an agent is present to that upon which it acts (AR, 62).
Explaining this point is very important in understanding how language brings us to an indirect knowledge of Being. How does any word describing Being become meaningful? The Thomistic tradition contends that any language dealing with Being is used to signify something transcending all things, but we make such language meaningful by demonstrating from effects that Being exists, for as we shall observe, any language about Being is derived from these effects (TA, 259-261). By this, St.Thomas means that any language that deals with God is finite, and since the finite being is a creature of God, there must be a way in which the finite language of beings could describe God. In the Summa Theologica, St.Thomas asks, “Are words used univocally or equivocally of God and creatures?” (ST, q.13, art.5) St. Thomas says that the univocal predication of God and creatures is impossible, for every effect falls short of what is typical of the power of its cause (ST, q.13, art.5). Any language that deals with God cannot have a univocal meaning for this will mean that God is totally distinct from His creatures. This will make God totally unknowable. On the one hand, any language that deals with God cannot be equivocal, for “we never use words in exactly the same sense of creatures and God” (ST, q.13, art.5). Hence, the solution according to St.Thomas, is that:
In this way some words are used neither univocally nor purely equivocally of God and creatures, but analogically, for we cannot speak of God at all except an the language we use of creatures, so whatever is said both of God and creatures is said in virtues of the order that creatures have to God as their source and cause (ST, q.13, art.5).
God as Being gives perfection to all beings and, therefore, is both like them and unlike them (AR, 135). Thus, when we speak of Being as the ultimate source of existence we use analogical language by virtue of this resemblance. Our being like and unlike Being comes from our participation in esse. Any word then that we use in order to describe God results from our being created in God’s image and likeness. St.Thomas is concerned to maintain that we can use words to mean more than what they mean to us: that we can use them to understand what God is like, that we can reach out to God with our words even though they do not circumscribe what He is (TA, 293). Thus, to say “God is good” does not mean we go beyond the meaning of the word good. Rather, it is entering into the deeper meaning of the word in order to find there a trace of God’s presence in His creatures. To go deeper into the meaning of the word means to transcend the finitude of this word. To transcend this finite means to trace the presence of God in His creation.
John Caputo and W. Norris Clarke on St. Thomas and Heidegger
Caputo does a critical analysis of St. Thomas’ conception of language in his essay Heidegger and Aquinas: An Essay on Overcoming Metaphysics. Caputo says that St.Thomas remains oblivious to the radical role played by language vis-à-vis Being (OM, 158). According to Caputo,
The idea never entered St.Thomas’s mind that language opens up the field of presence in which we dwell, that language shapes the whole understanding of Being (OM, 164)
Caputo accuses St.Thomas of using language only in a technical sense. His argument is that St. Thomas merely used language as a means of communicating the meaning of Being. Language simply had no role in the formation of meaning, and its value is reduced to being a sign of communication that human beings utilize. In Heidegger, Caputo argues, “language is Being’s own way of coming to words into human speech,” and this means that, “it is not man who speaks but language itself” (OM, 159). Language, according to Caputo, bids the coming-into-presence of things in the world. Thus, language does not only express the world, it is the light that makes the world a world for man. Language is not just a representation of meaning but it is that which gives meaning. Language cannot be reduced to a mere means of communication. It is not just a sign that signifies something. It is the very way in which the meaning of something comes into the open. St.Thomas neglects such an idea, Caputo asserts. Language for St. Thomas does not posses this radical role because St. Thomas, says Caputo, “is innocent of the encompassing importance of language in bringing beings to appearance, in letting them be in their Being” (OM, 158).
But Caputo’s critique of Thomistic language simply proves that Heidegger’s metaphysical understanding of language is different from that of St. Thomas’s understanding. Analogical language is never alethiological, and alethiological language is never analogical. According to Fr. Norris Clarke, Heidegger, as a phenomenologist, “can only describe how Being actually appears in consciousness” (KF, 55). Therefore, he has not gone “to the necessary ontological conditions of possibility or intelligibility of what appears, not even to the intrinsic act of existence within beings” (KF, 55). In this regard, Heidegger simply imprisons man to his finite existence. Why? It is because Being, in Heidegger’s sense, is only immanent, not transcendent (KF, 52). This claim has an important implication for Heidegger’s conception of language. Heidegger merely confines language to man’s finite existence. Therefore, language, in the Heideggerian sense, does nothing in addressing the problem of unity of beings to a transcendent Being as the ultimate source of their being. In view of this, Heidegger may very well be accused of ignoring the importance of the analogical character of language that allows the possibility of transcending the finitude of language.
Heidegger has not gone deeper into the power of language to signify the causal relationship between Being and beings (between God and the human person). Heidegger’s conception of language does not allow man to find a deeper context for his finite condition. Thus, when man is placed within the limiting horizon of finite existence, he will be unable to raise the question of a transcendent Being upon which his existence is rooted (EM, 138). Heidegger is forgetful of the capacity of language to trace the unity between Being and beings in the intrinsic act of being. Knowledge by analogy helps man point out a deeper context of his existence – transcendence. The truth is that Heidegger neglects the insight that analogy presupposes the reality of an ultimate source of intelligibility for the existence of creatures.
Language and Transcendence
Heidegger’s conception of language limits man to his finite possibilities. It does not answer man’s quest for the ultimate root of the meaning of his existence. The problem is that Dasein merely waits for Being to manifest itself. Dasein cannot reach to any meaning beyond his finite condition because he has to wait for Being to reveal this meaning to him through language. In this sense, language owns man, and man is forever at the mercy of Being’s revelation in history. This has an immense implication for humanity. For instance, Heidegger cannot accuse the Nazis of immorality, for the emergence of that part of history is nothing but one of Being’s manifestations in human history.
St. Thomas’ conception of language, on the other hand, enables man to transcend his finite condition and enter into his final unity with the Source. Language signifies the relationship between man and the ultimate source of his existence, Being. This transcendence is impossible in the Heideggerian notion of language. Transcendence is not brought about by anxiety. Anxiety is a purely finite condition and, as such, can only reveal the reality of man’s finitude. The meaningful context of transcendence is revealed to us, according to St.Thomas, only by our desire to know Being. This desire or love of truth reveals itself. St. Thomas conception of language enables man to transcend his finitude and find the presence of Being in his own existence as its ultimate ground and source. The inadequacy, then, of Heidegger’s conception of language lies in its inability to trace the ultimate ground of the intrinsic art of existence among beings.
Heidegger’s problem then is that does not answer the most important question raised by St. Thomas for metaphysics: “why is there something rather than nothing?” To answer such question is to account for the reason why beings exist. If raising the question of Being is important for metaphysics to retrieve it from the dust of tradition and scientific reasoning, then it is also valuable for Dasein or man to answer this question in order to quench his thirst for the ultimate meaning of his existence. Saying that Dasein is not enough. There is a horizon beyond the finite character of Dasein. Such horizon is the response to the question why being is and not nothing. This is the horizon of the transcendent Being, the ultimate source of all creation, the very reason indeed why beings are really real.
Finally, it can be stated that Heidegger’s understanding of Being is kind of historical domination. For him Being determines the meaning of the world for Dasein, but the problem is that even the Transcendent will have to submit to this historical unfolding. But God does not dwell in man’s historical consciousness the way finite beings do. Man must extend beyond his finite consciousness in order to raise the question of transcendence. For Heidegger, this only happens if God presents Himself to our own historical consciousness. Even God must submit to Heidegger’s Being for man to know that He exists. But such notion essentially erases the radical orientation of the human mind to the truth of Being. This is an orientation not only to the presence of things, but more importantly it is a deep drive that transcends our mere consciousness of a world. Limiting ourselves to the horizon of the world does not end our infinite hunger for the ultimate meaning of human existence. Henceforth, man must cross the bridge that brings him to the ultimate meaning of his being. This is a bridge that St. Thomas offers us, a bridge that unites us with one transcendent Being as the ultimate ground and source of all reality.