Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Reliability, Earth, and World in Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art"

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Reliability, Earth, and World in Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art"

Article excerpt

This brief essay will be narrow in focus, its aim being to present a careful exposition of the concept of "reliability" as it is treated in Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art."1 Since in this essay's famous discussion of a painting of shoes by Van Gogh, Heidegger maintains that it is the revelation of the "equipment-being" of the shoes that is the singular achievement of the painting, and since, in turn, this equipment-being is determined to be "reliability," it behooves us to secure a firm grasp of what reliability is, in order to understand more completely the nature of the disclosure effected by the painting. Too often, I think, reliability is understood, based on loose readings of Being and Time, to be a sort of inconspicuousness that characterizes the being of equipment in its everyday use. Equipment, the story goes, only becomes conspicuous in "breakdown" situations, where that "for which" it has its being comes into view as what has suddenly become impossible. Since being reliable seems to be precisely "not breaking down," reliability is associated with a sort of "default" inconspicuousness.

The "Origin," essay, however, clearly asks us to think of reliability in a rather different way. It would be very odd, I think, if Van Gogh's painting of shoes, which supposedly discloses to us the equipment being of a peasant woman's shoes (or Van Gogh's own shoes, as the case may be), only offered to us, in this disclosure, their inconspicuousness-something like a "not having been noticed before." Surely, the very being of equipment is not exhausted by its inconspicuousness, but is rather more fundamentally determined by something else, and it is that which becomes inconspicuous.

This would certainly make a great deal more sense; and, indeed, Heidegger offers us, in the "Origin" essay, a framework within which to think of equipment-being on its own terms, not merely as inconspicuousness. Even before indicating that the being of equipment lies in its reliability, Heidegger gives this being a different name-"protected belonging." At the end of the much-discussed passage in which Van Gogh's shoes "speak" of the tiresome tread and wordless joy of the peasant woman, Heidegger writes that "This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself" (34; italics mine). In the paragraphs that follow, this resting within itself is renamed "reliability" Reliability is that in which the "repose of equipment resting within itself [die Ruhe des in sich ruhenden Zeuges] consists" (35). In this reliability, "we discern what equipment in truth is" (ibid.). These two formulations, reliability and protected belonging, point to the same thing-that by which the equipment has its self-sufficiency; that by which the equipment can be as equipment; in other words, the equipment-being of equipment.

So we must come to understand this affiliation between reliability and protected belonging. First, what is reliability? Heidegger is clear about what it is not. He argues that while the equipmental quality of equipment consists in its usefulness, this usefulness itself rests in "the abundance of an essential being of equipment" (34), which he calls reliability. Reliability, then, is to be distinguished from usefulness, as its more essential source. How are we to understand this? How to understand Heidegger's use of these two concepts-usefulness and reliability-and their relation to each other?

Using and Relying in Everyday Speech

In order to understand the difference between "usefulness" and "reliability," I suggest we need to pay attention to the words "using" and "relying-on" as they occur in ordinary speech. Heidegger of course does not adhere strictly to the commonplace understanding of reliability, but meaningful observations can still be made in this way.2 One clear distinction can be observed at first glance. …

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