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.

CJM

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

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