Month: May 2014

Heidegger and the fourfold


The fourfold arises everywhere we look, both in classical and in modern thought. The tetraktys, the four elements, the four humours, William Blake’s Zoas, Jung’s pattern of basic psychological types, Martin Heidegger’s fourfold “thing”.

I find especially intriguing Heidegger’s exploration of the fourfold. Here as elsewhere, he offers a challenge to our customary way of viewing the world, a challenge addressed to science and rationalism as much as to our own habits of thought.

In order to make us think and “see” in ways that our received language has not developed to express, he breaks the boundaries of grammar. Nouns, parts of speech that we associate with defined and limited meanings, he turns to active verbs, such that presence becomes “presencing”, world becomes “worlding”, thing becomes “thinging”. When the world is “worlding”, as he puts it, that is, becoming truly present to us, it cannot be explained. And part of this worlding is when a “thing” becomes truly present to us in all its four dimensions. In a fine and suddenly evocative passage in The Thing (trans. 1971) he describes this arising of a thing as it “things” to us (lisping pun not intended …!).

Thinging, the thing stays the united four, earth and sky, divinities and mortals, in the simple onefold of their self-unified fourfold.
Earth is the building bearer, nourishing with its fruits, tending water and rock, plant and animals …
The sky is the sun’s path, the course of the moon, the glitter of the stars, the year’s seasons, the light and dusk of day, the gloom and glow of night, the clemency and inclemency of the weather, the drifting clouds and blue depth of the ether …
The divinities are the beckoning messengers of the godhead.
The mortals are human beings. They are called mortals because they can die. Only man dies. The animal perishes. …

I enjoy this passage for Albert Hofstader’s elegant translation, and also because it shows that Heidegger for all his nitpicking reasoning, or undoing of reasoning, is aiming for something higher and beyond reason, something that belongs to the domain of poetry and imaginal vision.

He goes on to explore further the unity of the four. This fourfold of the “thing” in its fullest being is a “gathering”, he says, reminding us of the Old German etymology of “thing” as a meeting or coming together for a purpose. Note that in Wildern the community gathers at the Meet-Thing to discuss matters of common interest, and herein lies the deeper meaning of thing as a “matter”. Addressing a matter is a process, not a predefined outcome, and similarly things that gather the fourfold into a single unity engage us in a way that encompasses simultaneously all the possible dimensions without predefinition.

To return to the foursome tree, the tree “things” because it engages us on all four levels, just as Heidegger proposes in regard to a chalice. Earth and sky, divinities and mortals are all gathered in the presencing or thinging of the tree.

And seeing the tree in this light is just what Prince Fion is experiencing as he has a sudden insight into the “book of Nature” and realises the difference between “knowledge” and “knowing.” Knowledge seeks to explain, while knowing waits for clarity of vision. Here something akin to a mystical process is at work.

Thus Fion’s search for understanding takes a great leap forward.


Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstader 1971.

The vision of the fourfold

Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep.

(William Blake,”Letter to Thomas Butts” 1802)

William Blake scornfully dismissed bleak rationalism, what he terms here as  “single vision” and “Newton’s sleep”, as a way of perceiving and understanding the world we live in. True understanding did not lie that way, he maintained, but in exercising the Imagination and “seeing” in a visionary sense beyond the immediate sense impressions.

In describing the foursome tree as a symbol of perfection, Margaret is drawing on a tradition that, as noted in the previous post (The foursome tree)  arises from number symbolism in classical thought and subsequently appears in many forms and interpretations down the centuries.

So in opening up to Blake’s fourfold vision we find ourselves able to perceive the universe in its infinite perfection. It is a vision in which we do not stand as observers but as participating co-creators. We are in the universe as much as the universe is in us.

In the last century, the phenomologist Martin Heidegger also framed a response to the notion that science could ultimately “explain everything”. Like Blake, he saw science as having a limited field of perception, working, as he saw it, with “objects” rather than “things.” When we work with objects, he argued, we do not see beyond our own need to call for explanations, and that way falls short of transcending the true nature of the world.

By trying to understand what Heidegger means by a “thing”, we enter into a completely different realm of perception and understanding.


More on this later.





The foursome tree

The two of them were towards the front of the procession and among the first to arrive at the foursome tree, where the hawthorn was now in bloom with tiny white flowers. Fion went straight up to look at the tree with curiosity, seeing the branches of the four elements mingled together. It was miraculous to see how the hawthorn stem, the ivy and the holly grew directly out of the rock, twisting together as they fought their way into the freedom of the air. The mistletoe hung from the higher branches of the tree, making up the four – the sign of completeness, as Margaret had said. Her words made him think that nature itself may be like a book which can be read, if you know how. Each living thing had a meaning to tell you, and you couldn’t arrive at it simply through reasoning. This was where her approach to knowledge differed so radically from what Fion had always been taught in science classes. Her way seemed to be about “knowing” rather than “knowledge”. And what was the difference? He had much to learn from her yet, he reflected. Or, perhaps to be more precise, much to learn from the tree?

Behind the Mountain, Chapter 4

The foursome tree really exists, in a mountain area of southern Europe. It is a remarkable sight, displaying exactly what Fion sees in the book. The roots of the hawthorn, holly and ivy grow from the solid rock and the mistletoe hangs in the upper branches where all four are entangled. Cattle and horses graze in the wide grasslands all around, and a chain of snowy peaks extends along the southern horizon. This open area is the Ras, as the book names it, for the summer grazing of livestock.


The significance of the four is built into the ancient Pythagorean symbol of the tetraktys, the triangular arrangement of the building blocks of creation, shown here. These can be visualised as the digits 1 through to 0, from which an infinity of numbers can be obtained.

While on the one hand representative of the ascent of the human spirit towards the One, the configuration also shows the pattern of descent from undivided spirit into the unfolding of matter, space and time. The One first divides, then extends, and finally has the potential to open out into  three-dimensional structures such as the pyramid and the cube.

Arising out of these forms and relationships come the elements of harmonics and proportion, so that wherever we find resonance and meaning can be traced back to these fundamentals. Nature is indeed a book that can be read, as Fion discovers, through “knowing” rather than through “knowledge”.