Heidegger's Etymological Method: Discovering Being by Recovering the Richness of the Word

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The role of etymology in Heidegger's thinking is curiously under-studied. In the English-language Heidegger literature, there are currently no book-length studies devoted to it, and discussion of it is surprisingly absent from books on Heidegger's thinking on language. Frank Schalow's "Language and the Etymological Turn of Thought"1 is apparently the only article to appear as yet that takes up the philosophical significance of Heidegger's etymologies, though it does not address the etymological method as such. What I want to do in this essay, then, is look at what Heidegger is doing when he does etymology, so that we might see how and why we might do it, too.

Lack of reflection on Heidegger's etymological method seems to have left philosophers with two default attitudes toward his etymologies. On one hand, for those generally hostile to Heidegger, the etymologies may come across as the kind of pretentious, inconsequential hand-waving that Plato seems to be sending up with the spurious etymologies in the Cratylus-in other words, they may come across as if there were no method to them at all. On the other hand, for those generally sympathetic to Heidegger, his use of etymology may be linked to his supposed goal of retrieving the "purer" concepts of earlier times.

This essay will argue that there is indeed a method behind Heidegger's use of etymology, but that the purpose of this method is not to replace degraded modem concepts with purer archaic ones. Rather than seeking to discover an original meaning, I argue that Heidegger's etymologies seek to recover the whole range of historical meanings of a word. The etymological method's purpose-in contradistinction to the purpose of philosophical analysis-is to open up the word, to overcome the tendency for the meaning of words-which is also to say, their ability to present to us the being of beings-to become restricted over time. Whereas the function of analysis is to "tighten up" and narrow our sense of a term, to precisely define its limits and eliminate equivocation so that we know precisely what is at issue in a philosophical investigation, the function of etymology is rather the opposite. In the midst of and by way of contrast with his exposition of the etymological links between "thinking" and "thanking," Heidegger warns that "academic philosophy"-that is, analytic philosophy, broadly speaking-"has done its share to stunt the word," that "conceptual definitions of terms, while necessary for technical and scientific purposes, are by themselves unfit to assure, much less advance, the soundness of language."2

Of course, it is one of the later Heidegger's theses that in the current epoch, which he calls the epoch of das Ge-Stell or the be-setting of things by technological "enframement," technical and scientific purposes are the only ones that ordinarily can show themselves. Thus when Wittgenstein tells us that language is simply a tool, a means of advancing our purposes, he is correct, but only for the current epoch (just as, in Heidegger's view, Nietzsche's doctrine of the will to power is a profoundly acute diagnosis of the times rather than an absolutely true metaphysics).3 But it is not only in the current epoch that words become less meaningful through their restriction for practical use. It is necessarily the case that we almost always do not hear what words say; when this is so, our discourse takes the form of what Being and Time calls Gerede, "idle talk." In Being and Time, Heidegger tells us that Gerede is the mode of discourse belonging to entangled (verfallen) Da-sein-that is, Da-sein that is caught up in the practical pursuit of its various everyday endeavors-and that Da-sein is usually so entangled. Heidegger writes that Gerede "is the mode of being of the uprooted understanding of Da-sein" and that "this uprooting is constant."4

In idle talk, language does not fulfill its role of bringing us into contact with the being of beings: "idle talk is the possibility of understanding everything without any previous appropriation [Zueignung] of the matter"; "it omits going back to the ground [Boden] of what is being talked about. …