Art / Heidegger / Philosophy / Science

Recovering the Sacred: Heidegger, The Thing and the Work of Art

“Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world.”

                  – Letter on Humanism

 

            What remnant of the sacred – a once dominant theme in Western civilization – remains open to us in the twenty-first century? Has our increasingly secular age relegated the sacred to obscurity and irrelevance, or does it still speak to us despite our declining interest in religion? These questions themselves remain of uncertain value, as the sacred no longer appears to concern the essence of our cultural health or our relation to truth, but instead refers to something now remote, archaic. To propose, against all appearances, that the sacred represents something indispensible to the wellbeing of a culture and an individual person seems absurd and unpardonably nostalgic. What need have we for any notion of the sacred, we who have achieved so much in the fields of science, who have liberated ourselves from the superstitions of a dying religion? When considered in light of our commitment to technological progress, who can speak of a return to the instrumental impotence of the sacred?

We appear at home among the profane objects of our modern world and quite without need of assistance from the dubious resources of metaphysical speculation. Against the gratuitous indulgences of religious and spiritual contemplation, our world roots itself in the empirical and concrete, focusing its attention on the practical usefulness of the tangible objects that populate our everyday existence. This orientation has proven itself capable of yielding tremendous benefits to humankind in the form of technological advancements that ameliorate the burdens of life: the automobile, air travel, communications and healthcare. Outpaced by the rapid progress of the scientific world-picture, religious concerns recede from view, and along with them any reliance upon the sacred in negotiating the philosophical questions confronting humankind.

The negative consequences of such a turning away from religion and the sacred, if any, are not altogether obvious. In denying the religious and the sacred the privileged places they once occupied in our culture, perhaps we have forfeited a degree of consolation that we cannot easily replace with our materialistic achievements. Even so, castigated by science as unsubstantiated conjecture, religion and the sacred cannot readily claim to have offered us anything more than comforting illusions and our recent conversion to the proven methods of science should, we are told, give us cause for celebration as evidence of our civilization’s gradual progress beyond primitive practices. According to contemporary scientific consensus, what we lose in relinquishing a robust notion of the sacred seems very little indeed.

Yet the idea of the sacred proves more resilient in relation to other, less practical human endeavors. When considered as a possible corollary to art, for instance, the sacred regains some of its former luster. Despite our age’s growing commitment to materialism and technological pragmatism, cultural critics occasionally recognize that our current philosophical outlook leaves us bereft of the resources needed to lend meaning or significance to our most prized aesthetic experiences. Without some notion of the sacred, without some means of distinguishing the vulgar medium from the sublime form, art looses the profound splendor we so frequently attribute it. A vague awareness of this loss has kept the sacred alive in a few select aesthetic circles, though even then it rarely betrays religious or even metaphysical commitments. While art may represent the last preserve of the sacred as a credible cultural force, we must admit that this lingering relevance is of only limited scope. Outside of religious practices – themselves in decline – the idea of the sacred has all but lost its cultural currency.

Though hardly recognized, the demise of the sacred has placed us in a philosophically precarious position not only in the arts but in other arenas. Materialism poses formidable difficulties to anyone concerned with maintaining plausible commitments to moral realism, though no shortage of materialists claim otherwise. To successfully adjudicate between contending moral claims one must be capable of appealing to an overarching notion of justice, and materialists struggle to derive a stable notion of morality from the raw components of the physical world. Whether we admit it or not, Nietzsche’s death of god and the decline of religion have resulted in a rise in nihilistic tendencies in the arts and ethics, and relativism and mediocrity threaten to undermine our most precious institutions. In the absence of a metaphysically robust account of the sacred we face a catastrophic loss of meaning and significance.

Of all the figures of the twentieth century to examine the West’s diminishing respect for the idea of the sacred, perhaps none supplied more philosophical resources to diagnose the condition than Martin Heidegger. The question of humankind’s authentic relation to what lies beyond the merely technological or instrumental recurs throughout Heidegger’s work, and while he employs a different idiom, the concept of sacredness saturates his later philosophy in particular. After Being and Time, Heidegger’s work often focuses on the manner in which technology can obscure our genuine relation to objects by imposing a rigid subjectivity onto our interactions. The history of philosophy from Plato onward, Heidegger claims, reflects an increasing dominance of the subject-object dichotomy that would later come to full expression in the eighteenth century with Descartes’s method. Having convinced itself that it stands at the center of all beings, humankind regards its role in the discovery of truth as an instigator seeking out knowledge of objects lying outside or across from it, things that cannot be known but though the aid of technological inquiry.

This narrow methodological emphasis, argues Heidegger, blinds humankind to the other ways that objects manifest themselves and distorts humankind’s understanding of its place in the universe. While enormously beneficial to the furtherance of human ambitions, technological method, or calculative thinking, as Heidegger calls it, cannot reveal the ontological space in which humans discover their unique relation to Being “itself”. Any notion of the sacred, or the holy, as Heidegger occasionally refers to it, becomes overshadowed by an all-consuming preference for the pragmatic manipulation of objects.

Fixated upon the advancements made possible through the subject-object modality of the scientific method, humankind unknowingly blinds itself to knowledge not only of its own authentic relation to Being but also to the common objects around it. In its preference for technologically oriented thinking, Heidegger argues that humankind grows forgetful of the way objects disclose a broader phenomenological plane of existence. In thinking only technologically, humans have lost sight of the essence of things.

“Calculative thinking,” Heidegger writes, “is not meditative thinking, not thinking which contemplates the meaning which reigns in everything that is” (DT 46). Calculative thinking “computes” things, renders them intelligible to a knowing subject for predetermined ends, but does not grasp the meaning of things computed. Heidegger claims that as a result calculative thinking ushers in an age of desolation when humankind loses its proper place in the world. He calls this condition “the oblivion of Being”, a calamity which “makes itself known indirectly through the fact that man always observes and handles only beings” (LH 242). In their attempts to manipulate individual beings for their own aims, humans have overlooked Being and cut themselves off from the meaning of things.

What else might the sacred be but knowledge of the true meaning of things? Is not the condition we find ourselves in – estrangement from meaning in the arts and ethics in a technological age – a sort of oblivion that conceals from us the significance of what we value most? In what follows I offer a reading of two of Heidegger’s late essays, “Das Ding” and “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes”, paying careful attention to how Heidegger’s project provides insight into the plight of the sacred in our secular, post-industrial age. I contend that Heidegger presents an alternative to religion for comprehending the idea of the sacred by proposing that our relationship to the material objects around us open up vistas to a deeper significance than our current thinking can encompass. Against a notion of the sacred rooted in otherworldly or intangible spirit, Heidegger turns our attention back to things themselves in order to emphasize the poverty of our philosophical outlook. In doing so, he defends an immanent notion of the sacred, one tied to our daily lives and experiences.

The Thing

Heidegger begins his essay with a “Point of Reference” in which he establishes the context for what follows. “All distances in time and space are shrinking,” he writes (TT 3). Though written in the middle of the twentieth century, this remark remains an insightful critique of our own age. Technological achievements have afforded us the means to eradicate the delays once necessitated by the imposition of great distances. Modern luxuries of travel continue to improve our ability to arrive at our destinations faster, and advances in communications place our interlocutors within our reach with startling ease and efficiency. Technology has effectively made the world a smaller place.

“Yet,” Heidegger writes, “the hasty setting aside of all distances bring no nearness; for nearness does not consist in a small amount of distance” (TT 3). Clearly Heidegger intends to offer a new, philosophically relevant notion of nearness distinct from our ordinary usage of the term. “What is nearness,” he asks, “if it remains outstanding despite the shrinking of the greatest lengths to the shortest distances?” (TT 3). In “The Thing” Heidegger aims to upset our conventional thinking about proximity in order to draw us into consideration of what remains beyond our mastery of literal spatiotemporal distance.

To achieve this, he subjects a familiar object to close scrutiny: a jug. Given that the jug lies near us and we the craftsmen and artisans created it, we ought to possess a full understanding of what makes the jug a jug. Yet Heidegger argues that the jug’s unique essence eludes us because our ontological relation to it renders the jug merely one object among many. The jug-ness of the jug remains unaccounted for in our shortsighted reliance upon it as a tool for the attainment of certain ends. To discern its true nature – its particular aura, to borrow Benjamin’s terminology – we must desist in thinking of nearness only in terms of spatial proximity and scientific objectivity.[1] For “Up to now,” Heidegger writes, “the human has considered the thing as a thing just as little as he has considered nearness” (TT 5). In their narrow reliance upon calculative thinking, humans have misjudged the nature of things and of nearness, deeming them variables relevant only in the fulfillment of human ends. To break us free from the grip of the subject-object orientation, Heidegger embarks on a philosophically idiosyncratic analysis of the jug that culminates in a radically new way of characterizing the essence of thinghood.

“What is a jug?” Heidegger writes, “We say: a vessel; that which holds another in itself” (TT 5). In our subject-object mindset, we tend to think of the essence of jug-ness as a capacity to hold liquid, to convey fluids from one place to another. Its conveying property provides obvious benefits to us by enabling us to complete certain tasks with ease, and we represent it to ourselves as this conveying object available for such purposes. “The thinghood of the thing, however,” writes Heidegger, “does not reside in the thing becoming the object of a representation, nor can the thinghood of the thing at all be determined by the objectivity of the object, not even when we take the opposition of the object as not simply due to our representation, but rather leave opposition to the object itself as its own affair” (TT 5). In classifying the jug a conveying instrument that stands objectively – that is, independently of the subject – we fail to elucidate either the essence of the jug or the nature of thinghood. “Indeed,” Heidegger writes, “from the objectivity of the object and the objectivity of what is self-standing, no road leads to the thinghood of the thing” (TT 6).

How then do we reach das Ding an sich, insofar as it exits? “We only arrive at the thing in itself,” writes Heidegger, “if our thinking has previously reached the thing as thing” (TT 6). Calculative thinking that conceives of things only as objects standing independently of the subject and as available for the fulfillment of certain tasks cannot think their essence. Nor can our consideration of the process of the thing’s production yield a satisfactory account of the thing.

Take the jug’s production, for instance. Heidegger writes, “the production by the potter by no means constitutes what is proper to the jug insofar as it is a jug” (TT 6). Granted, the craftsman molds the clay into its distinctive shape, thereby rendering a jug recognizable, but this construction alone does not account for the jug as a thing in the particular manner Heidegger wishes us to attend. “The producing lets the jug freely enter into its own,” Heidegger writes, “Yet the essence of the jug’s own is never competed by a producing. Let loose through its completion, the jug gathers itself in what is its own so as to hold” (TT 6). Here Heidegger challenges the primacy of the craftsman in the production of the jug so as to underscore its self-revealing quality. Against the prevailing paradigm of the production process – in which a craftsman brings forth the artifact by virtue of her own skill and ingenuity – Heidegger claims that the jug discloses its essence prior to production. “In the process of production,” he writes, “the jug must show its outward appearance to the producer beforehand” (TT 7). The producer cannot claim to create the jug unaided, and so mere craftsmanship cannot account for the essence of the jug; the jug too participates in the bringing forth of the thing through its own self-disclosure. But neither can the presence of the jug that results from this disclosure constitute the essence of the jug, and Heidegger takes care to note the origin of this error in the history of philosophy.

“What the vessel in this outward appearing is as jug,” he writes, “what and how the jug is as this jug-thing, can never be experienced much less appropriately thought, with regard to the outward appearance, the idea” (TT 7). Plato’s metaphysics of presence – expressed in his theory of forms – mistakenly interprets the appearance of the thing as manifesting its essence. He therefore, Heidegger argues, understood the craftsman as the efficient cause of the object and overlooked the self-disclosing function of the thing itself. “For this reason,” Heidegger writes, “Plato, who represented the presence of what is present on the basis of the outward appearance, thought the essence of things as little as Aristotle and all subsequent thinkers” (TT 7). In Heidegger’s reading of the Western philosophical tradition, Plato inaugurated a departure from the pre-Socratic understanding of presence and absence and firmly established the primacy of appearance as the essence of things. After Plato, philosophers sought to account for the nature of appearances in terms of representations and objectivity rather than consider the source of their appearing. Heidegger writes, “All representing of what presences in the sense of something standing here and of something objective, however, never reaches the thing as thing” (TT 7). The entire history of philosophy since Plato, he claims, has overlooked the essence of thinghood and so alienated humankind from an originary relation to the objects around it. How do we restore an authentic orientation to things? By learning to attune our thinking to what does not presence, Heidegger argues.

“The thinghood of the jug,” he writes, “lies in that it is as a vessel” (TT 7). Paradoxically for the Platonist, what gives the jug its distinctive characteristic does not appear to the subject as an object for investigation, but rather lies obscured in the empty reservoir of the jug. “The thinghood of the vessel,” writes Heidegger, “by no means rests in the material of which it consists, but instead in the emptiness that holds” (TT 8). Calculative thinking has but one means of representing the emptiness of the jug: as a space occupied by particles. “We represented what is effective of the vessel, its holding – the empty – as a cavity filled with air,” Heidegger writes (TT 9). “This is the empty thought as actual, in terms of physics, but it is not the empty of the jug.” Only what appears as an object gains recognition as meriting scientific scrutiny, and therefore the ontological emptiness of the jug – the thinghood of the jug – remains unattended by calculative thinking. In adhering to the scientific-calculative paradigm, humankind fails to isolate the thinghood of the jug, “we do not let the empty of the jug be its empty,” but rather convert that emptiness into a representation of air particles. “[T]he thing remains obscured as a thing,” Heidegger writes, “nullified and in this sense annihilated” (TT 9). Might this annihilation of the thing be the cause of the desecration we sense in our world? Might science lie at its root?

Science and technology have so far proven themselves capable of performing remarkable deeds. Heidegger does not wish to deny those deeds, but rather questions whether the scientific model can always deliver the exhaustive knowledge of the world it purports to achieve. He recommends a balance between absolute dependence upon technology and absolute avoidance. In his “Memorial Address,” he writes, “We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature” (DT 54). We cannot turn back history to a pre-technological era, nor should we want to. To counter the annihilation of the thing requires that humankind recognize the utility of calculative thinking while admitting of its limitations. Heidegger writes, “I would call this comportment toward technology which expresses ‘yes’ and at the same time ‘no’, by an old word, releasement toward things [Gelassenheit]” (DT 54). Meditative thinking, not calculative thinking, achieves releasement toward things by allowing them to reside in mystery, undisturbed by the calculative impulse to represent what remains un-representable, such as the emptiness of the jug. By acknowledging these limitations, Gelassenheit permits us “the possibility of dwelling in the world in a totally different way,” a way sensitive to our proper ontological position vis-à-vis things (DT 55).

For Heidegger, more lies at stake in our relation to things than epistemological clarity. If humankind becomes so enamored of the efficacy of calculative thinking and technology it may cease to think meditatively altogether, Heidegger warns, thereby risking a complete cessation of Gelassenheit. He writes, “Then man would have denied and thrown away his own special nature – that he is a meditative being. Therefore, the issue is the saving of man’s essential nature” (DT 56). At stake in our decision whether to think meditatively lies our very essence, our ontological status as human beings.

Returning to our consideration of the jug, how can we conceive of the phenomenology of the jug as relating back to our unique natures as human beings and as providing an opportunity to restore the originary relationship to things that Heidegger promotes? A purely calculative evaluation of the jug does “not consider how the holding itself essences,” how the jug as a vessel constitutes its unique character (TT 9). How might a meditative reception of the jug differ?

“The jug is a thing,” Heidegger writes, “insofar as it things” (TT 15). Here Heidegger advances an entirely new notion of thinghood that falls well outside of the calculative framework. “To find the essence of nearness,” he writes, “we considered a jug in the vicinity. We sought the essence of nearness and found the essence of the jug as a thing. With this finding, however, we simultaneously become aware of the essence of nearness. The thing things. By thinging it lets the earth and sky, divinities and mortals abide” (TT 16). The essence of the jug discloses itself as a thing by drawing up into itself all that lies near it, not spatially, but ontologically. In being a jug-like-thing, the jug opens up an ontological orientation to what concerns it, what impinges upon its essence as a vessel. “By thinging,” Heidegger writes, “the thing lets the united four, earth and sky, divinities and mortals, abide in the single fold of their fourfold, united of themselves” (TT 16). In this remarkably difficult and abstract passage Heidegger expresses his philosophical vision of ontological nearness and interconnectedness, of the way in which the essence of the thing, properly understood, relates back to the whole of being. Through an originary relation to the thing as thing we encounter the fourfold, the ontological matrix by which we locate our proper place on earth. “When we say earth,” Heidegger writes, “then we already think, in case we are thinking, the other three along with it from the single fold of the fourfold” (TT 16). Our encounter with the thing as thing serves as an entrée into nearness properly understood. Reflecting the others, each encounter with one member of the fourfold relates us back to the whole and so draws us near to the world.

Heidegger writes, “When we let the thing in its thinging essence from out of the worlding world, then we commemorate the thing as thing” (TT 19). Commemoration – or Gelassenheit – preserves the thing in its authentic essence and joins humankind to the world. “Thinging,” then, “is the nearing of the world” (TT 19). We come closer to the world when we allow things to remain as things and not as objects present for our technological purposes. The world falls away when we resort to calculative thinking that thinks only the objectivity of the object.

While Heidegger never employs the term sacred over the course of his discussion in “The Thing”, he does attempt to discern what is of genuine ontological significance in our interactions with the objects we encounter in daily life. The thing for Heidegger resists reduction to physical analysis and overflows our technological categorization, and so its significance lies beyond the scope of prevalent modes of modern thinking. The thing is not thought in our age, and so it remains hidden and our world drained of meaning, leaving humankind drifting amidst a disjointed sea of desecrated objects that cannot anchor its place in the world. Though not religious, Heidegger’s philosophical appraisal of our condition parallels the Judeo-Christian narrative of the fall, in which a rift divides humankind from ultimate meaning found in fellowship with god. While religious narratives can no longer speak to our age or its rampant materialism, Heidegger’s secular ontology provides a philosophically tenable means of explicating our predicament and restoring an idea of sacredness to cultural prominence. In his essay entitled “The Origin of the Work of Art”, Heidegger elaborates on precisely how meditative thinking opens up this deeper significance in our relation to things by examining the nature of artwork.

The Origin of the Work of Art

            What constitutes the essence of a work of art? Does its material composition comprise its entire ontological significance, or does the artwork implicate something additional? As a thing with obvious physical traits, the artwork might easily pass as one object among many: inert, localized and benign – a purely aesthetic object. As we have seen already, Heidegger radically reconceives the essence of things, and his evaluation of the artwork as a thingly entity rejects the reductionistic tendencies of materialism and the metaphysics of presence.

“We seek the reality of the art work in order to find there the art prevailing within it,” Heidegger writes. “The thingly substructure is what proved to be the most immediate reality in the work. But to comprehend this thingly feature the traditional thing-concepts are not adequate; for they themselves fail to grasp the nature of the thing” (PLT 37). We cannot ascribe to the artwork a merely aesthetic or practical purpose, Heidegger argues, but must instead identify the way the artwork reveals its distinct essence as a thing. To tease out the meaning of artwork, Heidegger considers a familiar example: Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes.

What resonates along with the image of the worn shoes? For Heidegger an entire constellation of references leaps forward from the painting that provides indications of the proper significance of the artwork. The image of the shoes calls up recollections of the laborer who might have worn them and who toiled in the soil for food and wages. These tribulations testify to the equipmental character of the shoes and the care with which the laborer conducted her work. “This equipment belongs to the earth, Heidegger writes, “and it is protected in the world of the peasant women” (PLT 33). Much like the jug that permits a link to the fourfold, the equipmental quality of the shoes reveals an interrelated world lying beyond the materiality of the artwork and implicates a host of concerns and commonalities lying in ontological nearness to it.

Heidegger writes, “Van Gogh’s painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasants shoes, is in truth. This entity emerges into the unconcealedness of it being” (PLT 35). The painting discloses not merely a representational image of the shoes, but draws near it a web of associations that reveal the essence of the shoes as a thing. Heidegger writes, “If there occurs in the work a disclosure of a particular being, a disclosing what and how it is, then there is here an occurring, a happening of truth at work” (PLT 35). The essence of art lies with this truth disclosure, with the artwork showing the truth of its being by revealing its interconnectedness. “The nature of art,” Heidegger writes, “would then be this: the truth of beings setting itself to work” (PLT 35). Against the metaphysics of presence which conceives of artwork in purely aesthetic terms and accords it a negligible truth-determining function, Heidegger suggests that art can speak to us of deep truths, not only of truths relating to itself but of the world beyond its limited purview. “The art work opens up in its own way the Being of beings,” Heidegger writes. “This opening up, i.e., this deconcealing, i.e., the truth of beings, happens in the work. Art is truth setting itself to work” (PLT 38). Artworks serve as the location of being’s unconcealedness, a truth event made possible by its thingly essence. What then, Heidegger asks, is truth?

To further examine how truth relates to the work of art, Heidegger considers a Greek temple. More than a mere material structure, the temple safeguards the religious and divine rituals associated with it, serving as the space within which the divinity appears as a possibility. “It is the temple-work,” writes Heidegger,  “that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human beings” (PLT 41). In gathering together the network of divinities and sacramental activities, the temple provides the occasion for humans to participate in those things that concern and draw nearest their natures and allows them the opportunity to engage a world that grounds them in the essence of their own being. Heidegger writes, “It clears and illuminates, also, that on which and in which man bases his dwelling. We call this ground the earth” (PLT 41). In illuminating the proper realm of human activity, the temple sets the world itself in motion and secures a dwelling place.

We may think of the temple as one particular kind of thing, a thing that instantiates the fourfold in accordance with its particular network of associations. By gathering and preserving the relevant practices and relations, the temple sets up a site for the truth of beings to reveal itself. “Such setting up,” Heidegger writes, “is erecting in the sense of dedication and praise. Here ‘setting up’ no longer means a bare placing. To dedicate means to consecrate, in the sense that in setting up the work the holy is opened up as holy and the god is invoked into the openness of his presence” (PLT 42). The temple provides the location for the holy to reside and bridges the space between humans and divinities, thereby preserving the sacred among mortals. A striking description indeed but, given Heidegger’s avowed atheism, how should we interpret this graphic religious imagery?

While not literal references to supernatural beings or to blessed objects, Heidegger’s comments aim to restore to our thinking a robust conception of the ontological significance of things that defies ordinary subject-object language. To subvert our reliance upon the metaphysics of presence, Heidegger resorts to religiously poignant imagery that better conveys the notion of sacredness he wishes to defend against the strictures of calculative, technocentric cognition. I suggest we take his references to “the holy” as indications that Heidegger intends to contrast the sacredness of Being’s self-disclosure in artwork from the mundane and philosophically impoverished objectivity of representational discourse.

“The world is not the mere collection of the countable or uncountable, familiar and unfamiliar things that are just there,” Heidegger writes. “The world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we believe ourselves to be at home” (PLT 43). Humankind skirts around being when it limits its thinking to only the objectivity of what is present. By contrast, artwork opens up the possibility of things residing in their proper place in being and draws us into thoughtful participation. Moreover, it permits the world to actively manifest itself as the world, to flourish in unconcealedness. “The work moves the earth itself into the Open of a world and keeps it there. The work lets the earth be an earth” (PLT 45).

For Heidegger, the unconcealing of the world out into the openness of being constitutes a more genuine account of truth than the objectivity secured through calculative thinking. “Truth happens in the temple’s standing where it is,” he writes. “This does not mean that something is correctly represented and rendered here, but that what is as a whole is brought into unconcealedness and held therein” (PLT 54). Heidegger advances a richer notion of truth than science can offer by claiming that meditative thinking, or Gelassenheit, attunes humankind to what does not present itself to a subject for scrutiny, namely being “itself”. Truth understood as correspondence between a pre-existing body of facts and a knowing subject does not, Heidegger argues, grasp the fullness of being’s disclosure in the thing. “Because truth is the opposition of clearing and concealing,” he writes, “there belongs to it what is here to be called establishing. But truth does not exist in itself beforehand, somewhere among the stars, only later to descend elsewhere among beings. This is impossible for the reason alone that it is after all only the openness of being that first affords the possibility of a somewhere and of a place filled by present beings” (PLT 59). Plato’s theory of forms cannot account for this opening of being, nor can it conceive of truth as an event situated between concealment and unconcealedness. We think truth when we think of being giving things over into presence as unconcealedness, and in our encounter with artwork we become aware of this gift and attune our attention back to being.

“Art lets truth originate”, Heidegger writes (PLT 75). By serving as the location of being’s disclosure and by pointing the way back into being’s withdrawal, art gestures toward being “itself”. The artist then, and especially the poet, is one who draws our thinking back to the question of being. In his essay entitled “What Are Poets For,” Heidegger describes the restorative role of the poet, his paradigmatic artist: “Poets are the mortals who singing earnestly of the wine-god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods’ tracks, and so trace for their kindred mortals the way toward the turning” (PLT 93). Poets preserve the link between the sacred and humankind by creating artworks that trace back to being’s withdrawal, the source of all giveness.

The poet’s role becomes increasingly important in an age that can no longer think the truth of being, but instead relies solely on the efficacy of calculative cognition. As technological achievements overshadow the need to think meditatively, our world falls further away from us and an uncanny uniformity reigns (TT 4). “The closer the world’s night draws toward midnight,” Heidegger writes, “the more exclusively does the destitute prevail, in such a way that it withdraws its very nature and presence. Not only is the holy lost as the track toward the godhead; even the traces leading to that lost track are well-nigh obliterated” (PLT 92). We experience this obliteration of the holy as a general diminishing of significance from what matters most to us and as an increase in distance that cannot be overcome through mere proximity. We experience obliteration as desecration, as the meaninglessness and nihilism of our age, as homelessness.

Can Heidegger’s secular ontology offer a viable alternative to the now ridiculed religious narratives that once undergirded the idea of the sacred? That remains to be seen, but clearly our civilization’s dependence upon calculative thinking continues unabated. Whether poetry can restore to us a capacity to encounter the truth of being depends upon our willingness to think beyond the scope of the merely productive and effective, to consider anew the proper aim of thinking in relation to our dwelling. While Heidegger’s esoteric vision of autochthony no doubt strikes some as too mystical to hold any bearing upon their lives, I suspect that his straightforward critique of technology finds a more sympathetic audience among modern readers, and it is perhaps this polemical side of Heidegger’s project that most clearly speaks to our age. For even the most ardent of technology’s proponents admit of the dangers in carrying our reliance upon electronic devices too far. Perhaps we need only confront the prospect of a world united by technology but devoid of nearness to appreciate the value of the now discredited sacredness we formerly took for granted. If so, we can do no better than to turn to Heidegger’s critique for a chilling reminder of what awaits us.

Works Cited

DT: Heidegger, Martin. Discourse on Thinking. Trans. John M. Anderson. New York [etc.: Harper & Row, 1969. Print.

LH: Heidegger, Martin, and David Farrell. Krell. “Letter on Humanism.” Basic Writings: From Being         and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964). [San Francisco, Calif.]: HarperSanFrancisco,                   1993. N. pag. Print.

PTL: Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Perennical Classics, 2001. Print.

TT: Heidegger, Martin. “The Thing.” Bremen and Freiburg Lectures: Insight into That Which Is, and         Basic Principles of Thinking. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2012. N. pag. Print.


[1] See Benjamin, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

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3 thoughts on “Recovering the Sacred: Heidegger, The Thing and the Work of Art

  1. Bravo on a very inspiring piece. This is particularly inspiring to me because, having recently written my interior architecture thesis on the subject of museums as a sacred places, I was thinking on a similar path regarding the loss of sacredness in a contemporary profane world. My research, however, lacked a certain depth that you have just found: connecting it to Heidegger’s theories and ideas. Just beautiful. I am revamping the paper in the hopes of publishing and I realized that I need to brush up on some theory work. Again, thank you for an inspiring piece!

    • Jacqueline, thanks so much for commenting. I think Heidegger would provide some wonderful commentary on the relation of built environments to our conception of the sacred. Best of luck on your ongoing research!

  2. Great essay. I think its a open question on whether Heidegger was a atheist. I go back and forth on the question. A very complicated question, one which I believe will be with this Dasein for the forseeable future.
    Again a great essay.

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