What is Called Thinking?

Unknown.jpeg“What is lacking, then, is action, not thought. And yet—it could be that prevailing man has for centuries now acted too much and though too little.”[1] So says Heidegger in his lectures titled in German Was Heißt Denken?, or What is Called Thinking? The 21st century is the age of information, where, upon a single click, after typing in a string of words, one is transported in milliseconds to vast stores of knowledge. Humanity, civilization—we humans have progressed and will continue to do so, improving our technology year by year, solving problems once thought impossible, moving forward at an exponential pace, faster than the rockets which we send to space, faster than we can possibly conceive, at so fast a pace we can no longer keep up so that we are, ironically, left behind, so to speak, while constantly going forth into new lands of machines and thoughts. While we have in exploring the world and nature advanced incredibly, we have also, it seems, retreated considerably from ourselves; while we are busy discovering new lands, we have no time to discover ourselves. Everything is instantaneous. Everything is becoming effortless. We do, and we do, and we do. Our world is driven by action, inaction deemed a vice. Yet as Heidegger suggested, perhaps we have done too much, and not thought enough. We act before thinking, not the other way around. Although our goal is to keep moving forward, we do not know to where we are moving forward. We do not think. We are thoughtless, and so we are unthinking. Easily a favorite of mine, Heidegger’s What is Called Thinking? asks us to reconsider ourselves, to engage in discourse about what it means to think, and to slow down, take a breath, and just think.

The name of the book is at once blunt and questionable. When asked the question “What is thinking?” we are quick to say that we think we know what thinking is by thinking! Heidegger realized this was the immediate answer, but he maintained that it is something much more than that; that thinking, despite being natural to man, the rational Unknown.pnganimal, the thinking animal, is not something within our grasp; that thinking is not what we think it is, contrary to what we believe every day when we say we are thinking. In short, traditional thinking is not original thinking. We go around “thinking thoughts,” appearing “thoughtful,” and “giving thought” to matters, absorbed in our heads, always forming ideas. We are ignorant of the true nature of thought, Heidegger wrote, for we are lacking an idea of what thinking is. As in the opening sentence, Heidegger said we act too much and think too little, at the expense of our own nature. Since the Greeks, people have been saying we ought to stop thinking about life and start living it, and they say action is better than thought; so the convention was that we ought to think less and act more, even though today, there is a preponderance of acting and a dearth of thinking. So what is called thinking? Have we truly forgotten what it means to think?

idea_1920-800x600.jpgWe think about things that are thought-provoking, things that provoke, or bring out and excite, thought. That which is thought-provoking, said Heidegger, is what “gives us to think” and “in itself is to be thought about.”[2] In other words, a matter that is thought-provoking is just that because it is essentially something worthy of thought. Topics we declare thought-provoking “give us to think” in that they compel us, in that we are disposed, by nature of our rationality, to consider them. For instance, politics is considered by many thought-provoking (and emotion!) because, by our understanding of politics, it is something to be thought about, as it concerns us, and we can always discuss it, form ideas about it, and reflect on it, coming up with new solutions. Part of the glory of politics is that it is unanswerable; that is, it can never be perfected, nor can there be a single solution, for there will always be disagreement, contention, and so it remains to be thought about. No matter how much we discuss it, there is more to add—politics as such is thought-provoking because it intrinsically brings out thought in people. However, politics is only one thought-provoking thing: It is not the thought-provoking thing. The thing which is most thought-provoking—to it we are naturally disposed. For as thinking images.pngbeings, animals endowed with the capacity to think, we must, then, by logic, be able to think that which is most thought-provoking, that most primal, grounding thing which thought is and from where thinking gets its nature. Seeing as it is the most thought-provoking thing, it is by itself something worthy of thought; therefore, by being thought-provoking, it must provoke thought, it must because it wants to be thought call us to think it. Just as a child cries because it wants help, so the most thought-provoking thing wants us to think about it because it wants to be thought about. This is only reasonable. To put it another way, if we imagine the most beautiful thing ever, we would have to call it the most beautiful, and we would have to look at it, by virtue of its being the most beautiful. The most beautiful and the most thought-provoking draw us to them, attract us like a magnet or lodestone does. After all, who could resist thinking the most thought-provoking thing? It is, ultimately, the most thought-provoking. This led Heidegger to formulate the following statement: “Most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.”[3]

What is Heidegger here saying? Today is what Heidegger called “our thought-provoking time,” by which means that, in the 21st century, we are dealing with so many problems, investigating so many phenomena, and spending so much time on our technology, that there are limitless possibilities for thought. With the “future” burning brightly in our minds from the glare of the possibility of a perfect world, where A.I. and technology become the crux of life, we are living, perhaps, in the most thinking time, since there is so much to think about! From exploration to space to manual-laboring A.I. to global Unknown-1.pngpolitics, the world of thought is at our fingertips. And the internet, providing us with information at lightning speed, is almost available to every single person. Despite this, Heidegger pointed out that this most thought-provoking of times, so seemingly immersed in ideas, is characterized by the absence of thought, real thought. This is the age of unthinking. We do not stop in the midst of living to contemplate, but keep going, like a nonstop machine which must always keep moving lest it die, the function of thinking forgotten, if not removed, vacuous, addlepated, left in its place an empty whole in which we know not what once belonged there. So why is it that, in spite of all the progress we have made, in the name of both science and philosophy, in the pursuit of knowledge, in the globalization of technology, in the improvement of academics and education—why is it that we are still not thinking? It is certainly not because we are unable, for we are, by nature, rational, thinking beings, beings capable of cognition, of abstract logic and computation, of forming ideas. No: We are unthinking not because we cannot think, but because that which is to be thought, has, in the first place, withdrawn. That is, the most thought-provoking matter has hidden itself from us, so to speak, has retreated from view. This is not to say that “the most thought-provoking” has vanished, as in is-no-longer-existent, but it has withdrawn, such that its absence is noticeable. Neglected, exploited, and forgotten, it refuses to arrive. That which is most thought-provoking refuses to be made present, or to be brought into mind, as we are not worthy of it. It is precisely because it is missing, because it is not here before us, because it is an absence rather than a presence that we must turn our thoughts toward “that which gives food for thought”; for, Heidegger said, what is not present is sometimes more important than what is, to the extent that it is mysterious, the variable in the math problem for which we are trying to solve, an empty space where it should be full, the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle. By seeing that it is not there, we realize that it was there, at one point, and we must find it again. The mysterious, the withdrawn—it draws us with it. What is missing draws us on a string, tugging at us, pulling us in the right direction, which means we are on the right track once we realize it is gone.

Unknown.jpegThinking is “man’s simplest, and for that reason hardest, handiwork,” said Heidegger.[4] Indeed, what is the simplest task usually is the hardest, for exactly that reason. Drawing upon Eastern thinking, Heidegger said we must, if we wish to learn thinking, unlearn what we have previously been taught about it. Unlike math and science, which require years of study and education, thinking requires neither, but is a natural ability, albeit one which has been forgotten. It is man’s most natural, easy task. And yet we know naught of it. Interestingly, controversially, Heidegger wrote, “Science does not think.”[5] (What this means, I shall answer in the following post.) If this is an unthinking age, far from apprehending that which is most thought-provoking, and if we are never actually thinking, then what we are we doing now? We are, in the words of Nietzsche, last men blinking. Heidegger defined blinking as “the mutual setup, agreed upon and in the end no longer in need of explicit agreement, of the objective and static surfaces and foreground facets of all things as alone valid and valuable—a setup with whose help man carries on and degrades everything.”[6] We are approaching “the last man,” who shall do no more, who shall hold himself up in his own self-constructed world, where he is safe from the outside, and from where he can take cover while he wallows in his own complacency, conforming to what the other last men say, confident in his happiness, which is at the same time his ignorance, his narrow approach to things, things he reduces to nothingness so that they have no meaning, meaning which is only assented to by everyone else, and which maxresdefault.jpgapplies only to the “static surfaces and foreground facets,” the appearances of things. In this unthinking age, we proclaim happiness for ourselves, triumphant, glorious, having agreed mindlessly upon truths that have not been questioned, but which are taken for granted. We debase the value of things through our unthought. Unfortunately, we are almost at the point of becoming Nietzsche’s Last Man—“woe him who doth them [deserts] hide!”[7] As we become more entrenched in technology and less involved in thinking, we risk adding to the already-growing deserts abounding. So how then are we to learn thinking—if even we can?

Heidegger returned constantly to the question at hand, What is called thinking?, methodically, decisively, in order to better understand the project he was undertaking, and also to make sure we are following along, each step clear. It becomes necessary, he said, to re-examine the question. Considering it is the guiding force of the lecture, the question needs to be clarified so we can know what exactly we are asking, for what we are looking, and how we are to continue on in our inquiry. Hitherto, we have approached the question as: What is called thinking?—We take this to mean: What is the action designated as “thinking,” or what does it mean to think? Heidegger proposed that the question is more nuanced than this, and he divides the single question into four separate questions, none of which is the real question, all of which constitutes it. Accordingly, Heidegger’s analysis is as follows:

  1. What is the definition of the word “to think,” or “thinking”?
  2. What is the definition of “thinking” in the philosophical tradition?
  3. What is needed to think?
  4. What is it that makes us think?

Again, each holds as much value as the others, although Heidegger believed the fourth question is the most important, the one which will ultimately answer What is called thinking? The other three, though, play a role in that they are necessary in arriving at the fourth. Put together, all four make up the question at hand, as each of their meanings can be deduced based on a different reading and interpretation. In the book, Heidegger did not go chronologically; so I shall go in the same order as he, providing a summary of each, then piecing them all together, since they build off of each other.

Beginning with the first question, Heidegger asked, What is it we call “thinking”; that is, the task we call, or denote, “thinking”? Tracing the word’s etymology, he concluded that the word “think” comes from an Old English word thencan (þencean) and thancian, whence we also get “thank.” (The German denken, “to think,” and danken, “to thank,” are clearly resemblant of the English “think” and “thank.”) This coincidence appears to be Unknown-1.jpegunrelated, and one might wonder as to how one can possibly relate thinking to thanking; yet Heidegger argued that thinking is thanking, in the sense that “to thank” is to express grateful thoughts. At Thanksgiving, for example, we give thanks to everyone and everything we value and for which we are grateful. This is the same thing as saying we give thought. When we give thanks to our loved ones, we think about them—we give thought to them. Coupled with thought, we humans have memory, a word Heidegger excavated, and whose original meaning meant “mindful,” from the Latin memor. To have memory is to keep in mind. Therefore, our memory is devotion to grateful thoughts. Once we gather these grateful thoughts, and once we concentrate on them, then we are said to re-call them, to bring them back into mind. This is recollection. This is what we ordinarily mean by “memory.” In short, what we call “thinking” is being attentive to our expressions of gratefulness.

Skipping to the fourth question, Heidegger asked, What calls us to think? He admitted this was a weird way of asking the question: Usually, we are in the active voice, the person who asks, yet here Heidegger made us the passive voice, that which receives the call. Does this mean there is something outside of us which calls on us to think, implying we are not the ones who incline ourselves, who make us decide, to think? Heidegger Unknown.jpeganswered this earlier in the book when he stated that that which is most thought-provoking calls us to thinking. “To call” meant to invite, beckon, “reach out.” When we call, we call for something. A distress call is made to get help, in hopes that someone will receive the call and answer it. But as we have seen, that which is thought-provoking calls to us, weakly, quietly, a shy whisper that goes unheard, a distressed call which is ever in need of assistance. Alas, no one answers its call, so it is left there, alone, its voice weak, desperate. A call does not always have to be answered. We speak of a “call to action,” which is the meaning Heidegger is looking for. That which is most thought-provoking calls us in the sense of calling-to-action; it calls us, invites us, to think it. As a father calls his son to come forth, to action, we say the father is “commanding.” As that which is most thought-provoking call us to think it, to action, we say it is “commending.” To command is to order. Commands are strict and expected to be adhered to. To commend is to consign, to entrust to, to give into protection, just as a mother takes her child into her arms, Unknown-1.jpegwelcomes the child into her home. So that which must be thought commends us to think it—we are entrusted with thinking it, as though it is a duty, something we should do. If a friend commends us with watching his house while he is on vacation, then we are inclined to do it, lest we fail him and let him down; so we watch it to the best of our abilities. Since we are asked to do it, we do it. In a like fashion, when that which wants to be thought commends us to think it, we must. It is like a friend to us; we do not want to let its trust down; we shall endeavor to think it. Because we are, according to the philosophical tradition, rational animals, animals endowed with thinking, and because that which gives us to think calls upon us to think, we ought to give thanks, to express gratitude, to it. Without it, we would not be thinkers. We are given the ability to think precisely to think that which needs to be thought! In short, That which disposes us to think, or That which calls upon us to think, is that which is most thought-provoking.

figure1.pngJumping around to the second question, Heidegger asked, What is thinking as defined by philosophy up until now? Since Plato and onward, the essence of thinking in philosophy, Heidegger thought, is logos (λογος), and its dual component legein (λεγειν). Logos, he said, is a word, or expression. “The cat sat on the mat” is composed of six logos. The sentence itself is legein, a proposition. Taken this way, the proposition “The cat sat on the mat” states that there is a cat on the mat. Philosophy until Heidegger sets out to deal with logos and legein in a “logical” manner, by which we mean the forming of correct statements and propositions, by applying judgments to the world. To say Kant was a thinker who thought, for instance, is to say he formulated a philosophical worldview through judgments and propositions. In short, what has been called thinking in philosophy heretofore is the forming of judgments through propositions in a logical way.

Third, finally, Heidegger asked, What is needed for thinking? He quotes the Presocratic Parmenides, who wrote, “One should both say and think that Being is.” The meaning of this quote, and of thinking itself will finally be answered presently. In the meantime, what is needed is openness. To think, one must be open. In short, what is needed for thinking is openness and both saying and thinking that Being is.

Parmenides in text.pngWhat is called thinking? The answer lies, Heidegger thought, in the works of Parmenides, a 5th-century Greek thinker who first examined Being. In one of Parmenides’ fragments, he wrote, “Χρὴ τὸ λέγειν τε νοεῖν τ΄ ἐὸν ἔμμεναι,” which Heidegger translated initially to “One should both say and think that Being is.” What this means is not clear, and it remains obscure, so Heidegger broke it up into “Needful: the saying also thinking too: being: to be.” Analyzing this weird, puzzling, and practically nonsensical sentence, Heidegger picked out two words that stood out: λέγειν, to say, and νοεῖν, to think. If the essence of thought consists of saying and thinking that Being is, then what does this even mean, to say that “Being is,” or even to think it? The Greek word λέγειν, he said, means “to say,” although we use another phrase throughout our day to express the same thing. When we give someone a summary, we lay it out for them. We give them a summary by laying out everything they need to know, so that it lies at their feet, before them. Also, admiring a beautiful landscape, we say that nature lies before us. Accordingly, λέγειν means to let-lie-before, to merely have something in front of us, and to acknowledge it. Of Unknown-2.jpegνοεῖν, Heidegger noted that it meant to perceive, too. But perception is, in a sense, a reception, a receiving of sensory information; and when we pay attention to it, care for it, we take it to heart, where we keep it safe, protect it, furnish it, warm it. Hence, νοεῖν means taking-to-heart. Then there is the question of what “Being is” means. Hamlet pondered, “To be, or not to be, that is the question”—yet what does “to be” even mean? To say that Being is, is, at first, a repetition. Being, in order to be, must be; that is, must exist, because to be being, it has to be! Heidegger explained that the word “being” itself is a participle, both a noun and verb, which each describe each other, meaning there is a duality to being, a two-sided nature. He avoided a long, pedantic discussion of what it means “to be” in the book, instead Heidegger on Thinking.pngchoosing to translate “Being is” as “the presence of what is present,” for the reason that the latter is derived from the former, in Latin, and so better allows us to understand what it is we are saying and thinking. Thus, we get: “Useful is the letting-lie-before-us, so taking-to-heart, too, the presence of what is present.” In the next post, I will examine this phrase in depth, but for now, this simple explanation will have to do: To think is to be mindful of the world around us, to care for it, appreciate it, and give notice to it, expressing thanks every living moment, for Being, because the world comes into view for us, unconcealed, the Being of beings. In other words, That which is most thought-provoking, That which calls us to think—is Being.

We live in an unthinking age. Technology is ubiquitous, and science dominates the intellectual world. While the universe keeps getting bigger, the world keeps getting smaller, shrinking with advances in technology, a form of Being whose nature, Heidegger believed, is to conceal itself, to make itself something exploitable. Crouched in our seats, fingers tapping rapidly at the keyboard, kept alive by coffee and other drugs, we live our lives unthinkingly, without examining life, without taking time to just sit, no distractions Unknown.jpegpresent, nothing over which to worry, but just to sit alone and think, to give thanks and appreciate what is present. Heidegger was amazingly prescient when predicting today’s maladies which afflict us every single day. Ignorance is one of the greatest dangers we face—but a greater danger yet is not thinking. The path to thinking is not an easy one, he says, but it is one we must undertake. It is our simplest, and therefore hardest, task. There is no bridge between unthinking and thinking; no, there is a leap, a leap from which there is no returning, and for which there is no net. Only a handful of people have truly thought. As such, we must, as a new generation, in order to create a better future, a sustainable one, an educated one, slow down, stop acting, and think. Just think. There shall be a new beginning. And we are it. We shall usher in a new thinking age—if only we will all take this leap together…



[1] Heidegger, What is Called Thinking?, p. 4
[2] Ibid. 
[3] Id., p. 6
[4] pp. 16-7
[5] p. 8
[6] p. 75
[7] Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, IV, 76.2, p. 343


For further reading: What is Called Thinkingby Martin Heidegger, trans. J. Glenn Gray (1968)

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