QCT: Bringing Forth

Heidegger’s whole philosophy is concerned with existence, with what it means to say something, a chair for example, exists. If I say, “there is a chair,” what does the ‘is’ in that sentence mean?

Heidegger is worried when we assume that it is obvious what ‘is’ means, when we think that things just are there, present, like inert hunks of matter, like rocks; that there is nothing really worth thinking about in relation to stuff being there in front of us.

So his first strategy is usually to point out that ‘being’ is a verb, that existence is an action, a process, not a state. Things are not just present, but are presencing themselves. They have presence, in the way we sometimes say someone has ‘stage presence.’ Heidegger is always found of Ancient Greek idea (captured in a notion like ‘aesthesis’, the sensuous aspect of how something is being in the world) that things ‘shine.’ They don’t just sit there, but have an energy that makes them visible to us in a kind of assertive way, drawing our attention to them. Even things that are not literally shiny have qualities that come out at us, or pull us in toward them – their shape, their weightiness, their texture. So if ‘there is a chair there,’ the ‘is’ in that sentence means something like, manifesting, coming forth, having a particular form and weight that draws the attention of the world, of other things and people in it.

Crucial in this sense of the presence of things, is that that presence is something that is more or less temporary. It is not permanently present, but currently presencing, dwelling in this place and time.

Now living things are easiest to think about in this way. They clearly come forth and then recede again. And when they exist, there is something special about how they are in the world, something that we call ‘life.’ Much of Heidegger’s philosophy is about recovering the sense of presencing that nature has, or gives us. But Heidegger thinks that this kind of presencing happens with all things, not just natural things. Made things, like chairs, have a natural presence.

In that case, what the designer does when he or she makes something is to attend to the presencing that (natural) materials already have, and borrow those to presence an artifact like a chair. A maker is therefore bringing something into existence, but according to this account by Heidegger, that coming to exist is not coming out of nothing; such a maker can only bring into being what is already on its way into being. The maker is merely shaping a presencing that is already happening. Or rather, that is what a sensitive designer is doing, as opposed to a technological designer, who does think that something can come from nothing, or at least from anything. Such a technicist has an idea about a design, and then just challenges any material into that form. The result is invariably something that is merely present, rather than has presence.

This also means by the way that the sensitive maker has an ambiguous agency. On the one hand a maker is active, making something happen, bringing something forth, but on the other hand a maker is more passive, following the presencing of what they are working with. This way of being between or both passive and active is often called ‘the middle voice,’ a grammatical category that English doesn’t really have, but that other languages, Ancient Greek of course, do have.

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