Heidegger, technology, and the way
There is sufficient evidence of Heidegger’s familiarity with the Zhuangzi, though the preponderance of his published remarks related to Lao-Zhuang Daoism concern the Daodejing.39 Heidegger was acquainted with Buber’s 1910 edition of the Zhuangzi fairly early in the 1920s. It is reported that he read aloud and discussed the exchange between Zhuangzi and Huizi concerning whether humans can understand the enjoyment of fish from Chapter 17 (qiushui ЖЖ-) of the Zhuangzi. It is reported that Heidegger illustrated his own conception of Mitsein (being-with) of human Dasein (being-there) through Zhuangzi’s playful evocation of the inhuman perspective of fish.40
Heidegger’s continuing interest in Zhuangzi is indicated by his reading of the “simile of the carillon stand” from Chapter 19 of the Zhuangzi in a discussion of metaphor, image, and language around thirty years later.41 In this chapter on “Fulfilling Life” (dasheng ^^), a non-instrumental artistry is an image of how to live; the wooden bell stand (Glockenspielstande) appears as if it were the work of spirits and is formed through a responsive artistry that is born of the fasting of the heart-mind (xin D) and without relying on instrumental technique, skill, expectation, or calculation.
A third example occurs in the context of Heidegger’s postwar thinking in a dialogue between an older and younger prisoner of war, in his Country Path Conversations of 1944-1945, concerning “letting come” as waiting in contrast with calculative expectation and learning as coming to know the needful instead of the accumulation of information or technical skills. Heidegger’s dialogue reenacted, without explicitly mentioning Zhuangzi, in this work the conversation between Zhuangzi and Huizi concerning “the necessity of the unnecessary.”42 The “uses of the useless” in Chapter 26 of the Zhuangzi (waiwu %Ш) signals an alternative to the restless accumulation, consumption, and reduction of thinking to calculation that is distinctive of technological modernity. This point is elaborated by Heidegger in his quotation of the story of the “useless tree” from Richard Wilhelm’s translation of Chapter 1 of the Zhuangzi (xiaoyao you) in a discussion concerning traditional and technical language in 1962.43 Heidegger’s indirect references to the Zhuangzi refer either to its multi-perspectivalism or to its, hybridized and intertextual, relation to the modern Western question of technique. Both reveal Heidegger’s dependence on a modern Western interpretive context developed in Buber and Wilhelm.
Country Path Conversations has further affinities with early Daoist sources. The liberation of the unnecessary and the useless revealed in the Zhuangzi
clarifies the orienting claim of this conversation: “The fact that the unnecessary remains at all times the most necessary of all"44 In a discussion that resonates with the early Daoist concern with “nourishing life” (yangsheng) through a noncoercive letting, the unnecessary is distinguished from the relentless necessity of goals and purposes that has furthered the impoverishment of life under the guise of securing and improving human life.45 The calculative reduction and exploitation of things results in the impoverishment of one’s own life according to Heidegger’s dialogue. The older man in Heidegger’s dialogue described how humans fail to “let things be in their restful repose (Ruhe)”; humans, he claimed, instead reify things as “ob-jects” [Gegen-stande] by setting them toward themselves.46 The younger describes in response the restless pursuit of things that forces itself upon them and transforms things “into mere resources for his needs and items in his calculations, and into mere opportunities for advancing and maintaining his manipulations.”47
The coercion and compulsion of the necessary have led to “devastation” and desertification (Verwustung); that is to say, according to Heidegger, it is “the process of the desolation of the earth and of human existence"48 The unnecessary appears all too lacking in necessity and purpose from a calculative point of view; yet the freedom of “being able to let (Lassenkonnen)” is the dimension where healing occurs.49 A primary characteristic of Heidegger’s later philosophy is how to expose and open oneself to this healing power of life and the holy (heilig) that he identified with the dimension of healing (heil), which has increasingly become alien and invisible in technologically determined life, through a calm letting releasement (Gelassenheit) that frees the self through liberating things. Heidegger elsewhere articulated the openness of being (Sein) in relation to his conception of nothingness and emptiness. As in Lao-Zhuang Daoism, these are not merely negative or privative notions of negation and lack.
Heidegger drew on images of emptiness and the way from the Daodejing. Paul Shih-yi Hsiao (Xiao Shiyi Ж№Ш) described how, as a visiting scholar in Freiburg after the end of the Second World War, he and Heidegger engaged in conversations concerning the Daodejing and translated sections of the text together into German.50 These efforts are visible in Heidegger’s later uses of Daoist images. In a number of places, for instance, Heidegger specifically attended to the “emptiness” articulated in the Daodejing. He interpreted the emptiness of the empty space of the spoke, the vessel, and the house in Chapter 11 as indicative of the ontological difference as an open spacing between beings (Seiende) and being (Sein). Its last sentence “you zhi yiwei li, wu zhi yiwei yong”
ЙМШ, which might be conventionally translated as “benefit from that which exists, use that which is not" is rendered into Heidegger’s ontological language in a 1943 text on Holderlin, ‘‘The Singularity of the Poet” (“Die Einzigkeit des Dichters”), as: “Beings yield to usability, non-being grants being” (“Das Seiende ergibt die Brauchbarkeit, das Nicht-Seiende gewahrt das Sein”).51 Heidegger construes you W (typically translated as to have, to be, to exist) as “beings” and yong Д (normally translated as use) as “being” in light of his thinking of the ontological difference. It is the perspective of being (Sein), gained through the encounter with non-being (Nicht-Seiende) here and emptiness (das Leere) elsewhere, which releases and liberates beings (Seiende) from their bondage in the usefulness of usage and consumption. Heidegger’s Zhuangzian concern with usefulness/uselessness is accordingly also at work in his appropriation of the Daodejing.
In a passage from “The Thing” (“Das Ding,” 1950), Heidegger depicted the emptiness of Laozi’s “empty vessel” (zhong ^) as the condition of the vessel’s holding:
[W]hat is impermeable is not yet what does the holding. When we fill the jug, the pouring that fills it flows into the empty jug. The emptiness, the void, is what does the vessel’s holding. The empty space, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as the holding vessel.52
The “thingliness of the thing” cannot consist of mere materiality but consists instead in emptiness; it is not matter but rather it is “the empty” that is the possibility of being held. Heidegger envisions the holding through the empty as the possibility of the gift of outpouring; the nourishing outpouring and generosity of water and wine, of sun and earth, mark the crossing of the open “between” in the marriage of heaven and earth:
Even the empty jug retains its nature by virtue of the poured gift, even though the empty jug does not admit of a giving out. But this nonadmission belongs to the jug and to it alone... In the water of the spring dwells the marriage of sky and earth. It stays in the wine given by the fruit of the vine, the fruit in which the earth’s nourishment and the sky’s sun are betrothed to one another. In the gift of water, in the gift of wine, sky and earth dwell. But the gift of the outpouring is what makes the jug a jug. In the jugness of the jug, sky and earth dwell.53
Heidegger’s interpretive redeployment of Laozi’s empty vessel in the context of “sky and earth” evokes while modifying the Chinese conception of heaven and earth (tiandi ^ffi). Sky and earth, along with mortals and immortals, form what Heidegger called the “fourfold” (Geviert). It is a poetic description of reality that differentiates a finite mortal existence within the broader openness of the world from the uniquely modern destruction and loss of such openness in the forgetting of being and the leveling of beings, including the human being, into objects of technical mastery.
Heidegger portrayed his own thought as a thinking of paths and ways illustrated by images of contemplative country paths and winding forest ways. As such, Heidegger’s way (Weg) has been associated with the dao and he himself addressed the word dao in a number of passages. Heidegger mentioned the untranslatability of “basic words” such as logos and dao. He also ventured to say more about “way” and dao, as an originary or world-disclosing word, in Underway to Language:
Perhaps the word “way” is a primordial word of language that speaks to human reflection. The leading word in the poetic thinking of Laozi is dao that “properly” signifies way. But because one easily thinks of “way” only externally, as a stretch linking two places, our word “way” has too hastily been found inappropriate to name what dao says. One therefore translates dao as reason, spirit, raison, sense, logos.54
Heidegger continued this passage by reflecting on whether dao, as a primordial disclosive word that usually and for the most part lies concealed in its unsaid, might be—to adopt an expression from his early thought—formally indicative; that is, a way that potentially points toward the plurality of ways:
However, dao could be the way that moves all ways, the very source of our ability to think what reason, spirit, sense, logos properly, that is, from their own essence, would like to say. Perhaps the secret of all secrets of thoughtful saying conceals itself in the word “way,” dao, if we let these names return into their unsaid, and are capable of this letting... All is way.55