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“Poetry, Language, Thought” by Martin Heidegger (Focus: Language)

This paper seeks to provide an overview and analysis of Martin Heidegger’s thoughts on Language in his book, Poetry, Language, Thought, in relation to architectural language and thought.

Martin Heidegger (September 26th, 1889 – May 26th, 1976) is a German philosopher known for his works on existentialism and phenomenology.  He decided to study Theology at the Albert-Ludwig University in Freiburg but then switched to philosophy.  In 1917, Heidegger joined in Germany army and was soon promoted from private to corporal within ten months but was discharged for health reasons.  Heidegger gained notoriety quickly as a phenomenologist, under the guidance of Husserl, becoming his assistant in 1919, and would later succeed him as professor of philosophy at Freiburg.  By 1924, he was promoted to become an associate at the University of Marburg, where he wrote his most recognized work, Being and Time.

Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933.  Heidegger was elected rector of the University of Freiburg in April 21st, 1933 and joined the Nazi Party on May 1st.  One year later, Heidegger would resign as rector due to disputes with faculty and local Nazi officials.  Heidegger continued his involvement with the National Socialist Party until 1945 although the degree of his involvement is still under debate.

In a 1950 lecture, Heidegger formulated the famous saying “language speaks,” later published in the 1959 essay collection Unterwegs zur Sprachem and collected in the 1971 English book Poetry, Language, Thought. In this book, Heidegger placed an emphasis on language as the vehicle through which the question of being can be unfolded.

“Language is the house of Being, in its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home”   -Martin Heidegger

To understand what language is and what language does, we must ask ourselves, what is the nature of language?  Heidegger begins this investigation by stating, “We do not wish to reduce the nature of language to a concept, so that this concept may provide a generally useful view of language that will lay to rest all further notions about it.”


“Language belongs to the closest neighborhood of man’s being. We encounter it everywhere.  Hence it cannot surprise us that as soon as man looks thoughtfully about himself at what is, he quickly hits upon language too.” To get to the essence or nature of what language is, we must take a step back and see language outside from ourselves, as it’s own entity.  Heidegger does so, by saying phrases such as language speaks instead of man speaks.  “Language itself speaks.”

“Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.”

-Martin Heidegger (1971)

“To reflect on language means—to reach the speaking of language in such a way that this speaking takes place as that which grants an abode for the being of mortals… What does this mean to speak?  The current view declares that speech is the activation of the organs for sounding and hearing.  Speech is the audible expression and communication of human feelings.  These feelings are accompanied by thoughts.  In such a characterization of language three points are taken for granted…

First, speaking is expression.  The idea of speech as an utterance already presupposes something internal that externalizes itself.  If we take language to be an utterance, we give an external, surface notion of it at the very moment we explain it.

Second, speech is regarded as an activity of man.  Accordingly we have to say that man speaks, and that he always speaks some language.  Hence, we cannot say, “Language speaks.”  For this would be to say: “It is language that first brings man about, brings him into existence.” Understood in this way, man would be bespoken by language.

Third, human expression is always a presentation and representation of the real and unreal.

“When we understand the nature of language in terms of expression, we give it a more comprehensive definition by incorporating expression, as one among many activities, into the total economy of those achievements by which man makes himself.”

In another light, others stress that the word of language is of divine origin.  “According to the opening of the Prologue of the Gospel of St. John, in the beginning the Word was with God.  The attempt is made not only to free the question of origin from the fetters of rational-logical explanation, but also, to set aside the limits of a merely logical description of language…” Other sciences such as biology, theology, sociology, etc. are then called upon to describe and explain linguistic phenomena more comprehensively.

“Language is the expression, produced by men, of their feelings and the world view that guides them… In it’s essence, language is neither expression nor an activity of man. Language speaks.  Accordingly, what we seek lies in the poetry of the spoken word.”  As Heidegger continues to discuss language, he advocates poetry as a pure form of language as it embodies a deep involvement with the world.  He urged a greater consciousness of the layers of the meaning inscribed in daily conversation.

“Everyone knows that a poem is an invention.  It is imaginative even where it seems to be descriptive.   In his fictive act the poet pictures himself something that could be present in its presence… What is spoken in the poem is what the poet enunciates out himself. “

Heidegger expresses, “…poetry inevitably linked the making involved in every individual’s own building and dwelling to other acts of making throughout history, aligned ultimately with the creation of the world and its mythologies… Poetry is what really lets us dwell.”

“Language speaks. Language? And not man?  What is it to speak?”

Language speaks as the peal of stillness by carrying out, the bearing and enduring, of world and things in their presence…  The peal of stillness is not anything human. But on the contrary, the human is indeed in its nature to speech… What has thus taken place, human being, has been brought into its own by language, the peal of stillness.  Such an appropriating takes place in that the very nature, the presencing, of language needs and uses the speaking of the mortals in order to sound as the peal of stillness for the hearing of mortals.  Only as men belong within the peal of stillness are mortals able to speak in their own way in sounds.”

“If attention is fastened exclusively on human speech, if human speech is taken simply to be the voicing of the inner man, if speech so conceived is regard as language itself, then the nature of language can never appear as anything but an expression and an activity of man.  But human speech, as the speech if mortals, is not self-subsistent.  The speech of mortals rests in its relation to the speaking of language.”

Mortals speak by responding to language in a twofold way, receiving and replying.  The mortal word speaks by corresponding in a multiple sense.  Language and speaking is a multisensory act and is not just responding with words of the mouth.  It is also by receiving words through the ear.   In this way mortals live in the speaking of language.

“Man speaks in that he responds to language.  This responding is hearing. It hears because it listens to the command of stillness.”

Heidegger concludes, “It is not a matter here of stating a new view of language. What is important is learning to live in the speaking of language.  To do so, we need to examine constantly whether and to what extent we are capable of what genuinely belongs to responding: anticipation in reserve. For:

Man speaks only as he responds to language. Language speaks. Its speaking speaks for us in what has been spoken”


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