Thursday, July 7, 2011

Heidegger and Burke on Communication and Rhetoric

Both Heidegger and Kenneth Burke get talked about a lot in a particular group of scholars in rhetoric and composition (Thomas Rickert, Byron Hawk, Victor Vitanza, just to name a few). I have just introduced myself to Burke intensely in the past few weeks and its making me think about whether Heidegger’s thought is useful for my current work. Both Burke and the (early) Heidegger seem to be ‘humanists’ in a certain sense of the word and both of them believe that language sets man apart from animals (after all, if logos is associated with reason, logos meaning “word,” then man is the animal who uses words), but both of them look at language in a different way, Burke eventually arguing for “symbol-using, mis-using, and making” creature and Heidegger eventually posits language as a kind of metaphysical entity primordially linked to Being. Let us begin with Heidegger.

For Heidegger, Dasein is separated from other animals because “being is an issue for it” (Being and Time 32). But this is not to just say that being strives to persist in its own being (Spinoza’s conatus) or that we are motivated merely by self-preservation, but rather that “Understanding of Being is itself a definite characteristic of Dasein’s Being” (32). Heidegger argues that this makes Dasein the only ‘ontic’ being that is  ‘ontological’. We question our own being, our own acts, etc.  Heidegger’s task is to question the “meaning of being.”  In order to discover this, Heidegger uses Dasein (the inquirer) as a paradigm—what is the meaning of our being—our human being: “Therefore, fundamental ontology, from which alone all other ontologies can take their rise, must be sought in the existential analytic of Dasein” (Being and Time 34). Since Dasein uses language, Heidegger takes our language as a starting point. This is one of the strengths of Heidegger’s work—he literally asks what the meaning of the copula “is” is: When we say that something “is” this, what do we mean? The scientific ‘state-of-mind’, which is also the way philosophers have thought about this forever is that the ‘is’ is a substance. The world is a space which contains substances and objects. This thinking of “is” reduces the object (or the person) to what Heidegger calls “presence-at-hand,” which is a certain way we can look at objects. However, for Heidegger, and for Burke, the world is not just ‘there’, we are engaged in it and indeed see things in terms of its use. It is this kind of pragmatic view of Heidegger that a lot of rhetoric and composition people focus on—that and his concept of the world (something we may return to in another post).

Burke too believes that the ‘is’ covers up a mode of being (an act) rather than revealing a substance in itself. Burke asks in the Rhetoric, “)—“is [Plato] not here seeking for the verb, “to be a house,” as the universal in which every particular “being-a-house” would participate?” (Rhetoric 153). This is why Heidegger asks the question of being, because for him, the primary act is being. This is Heidegger’s task from the get-go. For Burke, however, we cannot look into the ‘to be’ in order to find the ‘meaning’ of Being as such. But by going from the idea of “this is this” to “to be a ____”, which is an act and attempt to put it back into a meaning for Burke is somewhat pointless. This is because Burke is primarily interested in actions, which are related to ethics, something with which we all know Heidegger had his issues. This is because, I think, Heidegger tries to place the emphasis on the side of Being rather than the side of action. In other words, whereas pragmatic thinkers like Burke and Dewey want to infuse instrumentality with a sense, (late) Heidegger wants to argue that ‘thinking’ itself is an act that somehow transcends practice and action. As if thinking was something different than acting! (is it?) This is the power of Burke and, I think, Dewey: thinking/acting may be instrumental, but not merely instrumental (see Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy). Heidegger wants thinking to be the primary activity (also seemingly obvious in his metaphors of ‘dwelling’, ‘house of being’, etc.). In his “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger writes, “The answer is that thinking is neither theoretical nor practical. It comes before this distinction,” which seems all well and good until he says “such thinking has no result. It has no effect. It satisfies its essence in that it is” (259).
For Heidegger, especially in his later work, language reveals the world in ways (again, we have to look at the Heideggerian language of ‘alethiea’—this is present even in Being and Time)—for Burke? It argues the world (strange way of putting it, I know). Language only uses us insofar as each word is infused with moral content regarding our actions. But let us return to Heidegger’s Being in Time and see if we locate where this difference comes from.

Dasein (we) understand ourselves in terms “of a possibility of itself: to be itself or not itself” (33). This implies a kind of freedom for human beings (a term that will be made much of by later existentialists, like Sartre).This does not mean that we are unconditioned—this is a mis-reading of much existentialism. However, this does seem to imply that our actions are most related to what we are—our authentic being—rather than acting on the world. We will see what Heidegger thinks as most “authentic.”  My question, as I delve into one of the most useful and complicated sections of the first part of Being in Time, Ch. 5 “Being-in as such,” is: how is Heidegger’s ‘fallenness’ and Burke’s several characterizations of ‘original sin’ different? What are the rhetorical and ethical implications in Heidegger’s articulation of understanding, assertion, discourse, idle talk, and curiosity, and, most importantly, communication?

For Heidegger, we are most authentic when we are most concerned with our own being—when we are reflecting on our possibilities. The state-of-mind (or ‘mood’) of Fear/anxiety/dread (pick your translation of the German) calls us to consider our freedom of possibilities—it takes us away from our ‘involvement’ in the world and lets us reflect on our state in the world. But this is only one side of Dasein, the other being understanding. Richard Polt’s Heidegger, an Introduction explain’s Heidegger’s sense of understanding

But consider our everyday experience of getting to know someone by asking what she does. She answers ‘I am a sculptor’…The statement ‘I am a sculptor’ means (if it is a truly revealing statement) that the possibility of sculpting is an important possibility for her. She understands herself and her world largely in terms of  it…her very identity is formed by her ability to sculpt. In general, our Being is an “ability to be” or “can be. (Polt, 69)

Thus, although this makes a lot of sense, it formulates our being-in ‘as such’ as a process of identity formation—what we want to be. We might also want to look at this in terms of Burke's "occupational psychosis" that he discusses in Permanence and Change. Before we move into Heidegger’s treatment of our interaction with others, let us look at Heidegger’s articulation of Interpretation, which is related to our primordial understanding. I am directly copying from a précis I wrote on Heidegger’s chapter in college:

The as-structure

“That which has been circumspectively taken apart with regard to its “in-order-to”, and taken apart as such—that which is explicitly understood—has the structure of something as something” (Heidegger, 189). For example, we see the hammer as something to hit nails with. The hammer is already interpreted and understood before we perceive it as “ready-to-hand.” Heidegger wants to make sure we understand that this means that an interpretation is not something “added” onto a present-at-hand, but that anything we encounter in the world is already interpreted as something with which we concern ourselves.

The fore-structure

Richard Polt says that the explanation of the 3 main terms here (fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception) is rather vague in Heidegger: “but the main point is that, in various ways, we must already have a ‘take’ on something, as we say, before we can interpret it” (Polt, 71). (If the reader wishes to delve into an attempt at distinguishing these terms and an excellent concrete example, see Gelven’s Commentary pgs 94-96).


Meaning is not another way to understand interpretation, but rather it is the term for both the as-structure and the fore-structure together: “When entities within-the-world are discovered along with the Being of Dasein—that is, when they have come to be understood—we say that they have meaning” (Heidegger, 192). Only Dasein is meaningful (Heidegger, 193) because meaning is not a property attached to something present-at-hand, but is inherently related to Dasein’s being. Because Dasein is the only being that can have meaning, it is the only thing that can be meaningless (this is different from “unmeaning,” which characterizes present-at-hand things as “essentially devoid of any meaning at all” (Heidegger, 193).

Michael Gelven points out explicitly how different this is from traditional conceptions of meaning: “For such a rendition of meaning places the focal point of meaning not in the words, but in Dasein” (Gelven, 96). In this next section Heidegger will tell how assertion (statements in words) are derivative of this sort of meaning of Dasein.

Michael Gelven makes a good point. For Heidegger, meaning (and Interpretation) is not in ‘words’ but in Dasein. Words form assertions. Assertions are derivative from Interpretation. Communication can only happen in the realm of assertion, but look at how Heidegger claims assertion mainly describes:

Heidegger defines assertion as “a pointing-out which gives something a definite character and which communicates” (Heidegger, 199). Heidegger explains that the reason assertion is derivative of interpretation is that there is a change in the as-structure: “In its function of appropriating what is understood, the ‘as’ no longer reaches out into a totality of involvements. As regards its possibilities for Articulating reference-relations, it has been cut off from that significance which, as such, constitutes environmentality. The ‘as’ gets pushed back into the uniform plane of that which is merely present-at-hand” (Heidegger, 201). Assertion thus covers up the readiness-to-hand of an object and reveals it merely as a presence-at-hand with a certain “property” rather than involved in a totality.

Somehow, once we put things into ‘words’ and sentences, Heidegger argues that the as “no longer reaches out into a totality of involvements” (199). Somehow, assertions are cut off from the non-verbal world of experience and the assertion transforms Interpretation into presence-at-hand. On one level, I think Burke would agree with this. Indeed, his project is to restore the actions and moral implications (and really ‘force) in words and sentences—but Heidegger does not consider this aspect. Sure, the ‘as’ structure or the ‘action’ of a hammer is covered up by asserting something about the hammer: ‘the hammer is steel,” but assertion (and communication) is not merely descriptive and it is not always signifying. For Burke, assertions (language,words) are tied up with the non-verbal in a forceful way rather than as a kind of ‘derivation’. Heidegger’s “assertion” contains no force. John Muckelbauer argues in The Future of Invention that rhetoric as persuasion is a “constellation of forces,” and is not “primarily concerned with understanding or even with the effort to prevent misunderstanding” but as a consideration of its effects (Muckelbauer 18). If we remember, late Heidegger in Letter on Humanism privileges thinking as something which participates in being rather than acting in the world. Thus, Heidegger leaves no room for a consideration of effects of thinking (this is different from considering the consequences of an act).

In order to really get at the problem with Heidegger putting aside persuasion, we have to move into his discussion of communication. I quote an extensive passage from Being and Time:

‘Communication’ in which one makes assertions—giving information, for instance--is a special case of that communication which is grasped in principle existentially. In this more general kind of communication, the Articulation of Being with one another understandingly is constituted. Through it a co-state-of-mind gets ‘shared’, and so does the understanding of Being-with. Communication is never anything like a conveying of experiences, such as opinions or wishes, from the interior of one subject into the interior of another. Dasein-with is already essentially manifest in a co-state-of-mind and a co-understanding. In discourse Being-with becomes ‘explicitly’ shared; that is to say, it is already, but it is unshared as something that has not been taken hold of an appropriated. (205)

This is a hard passage. But what I think Heidegger is getting at is how communication involves a primordial sharing among Da-sein. But the funny thing about this mit-sein, this publicness of Dasein in the world, is that Heidegger characterizes this as a fallenness and inauthenticity. Heidegger writes, “Thus Dasein’s understanding in the ‘they’ is constantly going wrong in its projects, as regards the genuine possibilities of Being. Dasein is always ambiguously ‘there’—that is to say in that public disclosedness of Being-with-one-another where the loudest idle talk and the most ingenious curiosity [my italics] keep ‘things moving’” (Heidegger 218-219). Heidegger is quick to add that this ‘fallenness’ isn’t ‘bad’ but is just part of how the world is. However, one senses his reservations for this public being-with-one-another. It seems that Burke describes this ‘fallenness’ in detail, which is the rhetorical situation. For Heidegger this ‘being-with’ actually masks other intentions: “Being-with-one-another in the “they” is by no means an indifferent side-by-sideness in which everything has been settled, but rather an intent, ambiguous watching of one another, a secret and reciprocal listening-in. Under the mask of ‘for-one-another’ and ‘against-one-another’ is in play” (219). Even though Heidegger says that this is the pre-condition for care and the possibility for understanding, it still seems as though Heidegger does not think this is the goal/purpose of Dasein. The they-self is where people are at odds and yet, at the same time, ‘with’ one another.
For Heidegger, as I’ve already pointed out, the point of communication and understanding  is to reveal the world so as to genuinely understand things. This comes out in his understanding of ‘ambiguity’ as part of the ‘they’ self:

“Ambiguity deals with the impossibility to tell what is genuine understanding and what is not: “When, in our everyday Being-with-one-another, we encounter the sort of thing which is accessible to everyone, and about which anyone can say anything, it soon becomes impossible to decide what is disclosed in a genuine understanding and what is not” (Heidegger, 217)

            For Burke, language is not primarily related to meaning, understanding, and being, but to actions. Heidegger points us in the right direction, arguing that we must move away from our everyday understanding, but makes the mistake that the criteria of judgment should somehow be ‘understanding’ or meaning. What Burke makes clear, is that language is used and has force and related to moral acts. Later Heidegger moves more and more into an understanding of language as such, which he finds in poetry.  Michael Gelven writes, “We understand language as language only as poetry.” Language is primarily understood as something that we “use” to express ourselves, but, it is only when someone speaks well that we recognize language as language and not as a “tool.”     

But this is precisely what Burke is arguing against: even poetry contains motives that relate to the realm of acts and morality. Poetic language is weighted language: no words are ‘neutral’.

Wheras for Heidegger, we are the “preservers” of being, we watch over language, we attempt to preserve its mystery, Burke de-mystifies. Heidegger dreams of poeisis: “And art was called simply techne. It was a single, manifold revealing. It was pious, promos, i.e. yielding to the holding sway and the safekeeping of truth” (339). Perhaps it is this ‘pious’ attitude that Burke seeks to de-mystify. Its not that piety in itself is bad—on the contrary--but rather than adhering to the piety of a kind of destined and unified truth/Being, Burke seeks to break these pieties by “perspective of incongruity” (see Permanence and Change). There are many pieties: “Piety is the sense of what properly goes with what” (74). And a new piety involves the displacement of an old piety, which involves exhortation. This is why for Burke, assertion really is an ‘assertion’—it exhorts someone to see something a certain way. I love these lines by Burke:

Morals, shaped by the forms and needs of action, become man’s most natural implement when exhorting to action. As implicit in censorial words, they are the linguistic projection of our bodily tools and weapons. Morals are fists [my italics]. . .From this point of view, the moral elements in our vocabulary are symbolic warfare. (P&C 192)

Our ‘fallnness’ for Burke, our ‘categorical guilt’, is not inauthenticity, or impiety towards the revealing of truth, but rather in our material (though non-verbal) relations to one another. Indeed, language as such has an implicit hierarchy. It is this hierarchy that Burke calls the ‘social mystery,’ which, though not the only mystery, “gains in depth, persuasiveness, allusiveness and illusiveness precisely by reason of the fact that it becomes inextricably interwoven with mysteries of these other sorts” (Rhetoric f277). It’s in classification and the motives for each class (not necessarily economic class) that creates a hierarchy. Burke writes in the Rhetoric, “The ‘invidious’ aspects of class arise from the nature of man not as a ‘class animal’ but as a ‘classifying animal’” (282). Thus, persuasion, conflict, and appeal in language would still exist in a ‘communist’ society (as indeed, we have seen by historical example). This is because, so long as we use language, there will be a principle of hierarchy. Language is not descriptive or revealing of reality, but “hortatory.” Language, in its essence, is not to describe, but  to convert to a certain point of view or orientation: “Spontaneous speech is not a naming at all, but a system of attitudes, of implicit exhortations” (P&C 177).

If this is true, then the ‘state-of-mind’ that Heidegger finds within Dasein is transferred to language itself. Language itself, as a creation by man (and woman), has prejudices and motives. As such, language is always ethical and concerned with actions.  

At this point, I’d like to look at two later essays of Burke: “The Definition of Man” and, especially, the brilliant and dense, “A Dramatistic View of the Origin of Language.”

Here are the 5 statements Burke makes about man:

1. Man is the symbol using animal
2. Man is the inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative!)
3. Man is separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making
4. Man is goaded by the spirit of hierarchy
5. Man is rotten with perfection

(See Language as Symbolic Action pg 16 for a summary)

To me, this is a powerful definition. Burke elaborates on most of these, but particularly the use of the ‘negative’ in the penultimate essay of Language as Symbolic Action. In this essay, Burke traces the negative “as such” back to its possible origins. For Burke, the use of the negative is the essential distinction between the verbal and the non-verbal (LSA 420). Although he allows that, following Bergson, there is no negative in nature (everything is positive), Burke locates the importance of the negative in morality:

a Dramatistic approach would look for the ‘essential’ instance of an admonitory of pedagogical negative—and it would find this to perfection in the negatives of the Ten Commandments. Hence we would ‘start’ in the thought of the negative command” (422).

We can understand how this might be problematic for someone like Victor Vitanza. The mention of “pedagogical negative” and the Christian connotations of Burke’s work (whereas Vitanza draws on Lyotard’s ‘pagan’ philosophy). But I think Burke makes a very convincing case for the negative as a useful aspect of language. As Raul Sanchez pointed out to me the other day, there are a lot of thinkers who are trying to get passed dialectic, which also means getting past the negative. But can we get passed the negative—and—if the negative really is the ‘genius’ of language, do we want that? Burke writes at the end of “A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language,” “In their positive,  material nature as powers, our many might new technological devices cal for a corresponding set of admonitory controls, or negatives, which are best sanctioned how?” (LSA 479).

Burke explains the negative as an idea as opposed to an image. Why? Because Bergson’s argues that we cannot picture nothing—we have to picture something that ‘means’ nothing. This leads Burke to argue that ideas do not have to be “things,” rather, ideas are in “the realm of action” (430). This is not to say that once a negative is expressed, it does not also include an image: “ ‘Thou shall not kill’ is in essence an idea, in its role as imagery it can but strike the resonant gong: ‘Kill’” (431). This gives me an interesting take on Hegel’s determinate negation: not-kill contains the image of kill, but the idea of a command. This is why not-A, when expressed in words, is something completely different than the ‘opposite’ of A, or ‘nothing’.

Heidegger does not consider ‘ideas’ in this way. In Being and Time, he argues that “even a command is given about something, a wish is about something” (205). Rather than emphasize the ‘something’ (which is the ‘image’), Burke emphasizes the command (and thus the rhetorical, persuasive aspects).

I will probably return to Burke, Kant, Bergson, and Deleuze in my next post, but I think this is enough for now. I think I can also see how this later essay of Burke’s could lead many rhet/comp people into an exploration of Levinas (see Diane Davis). 

Works Consulted/Cited (abridged because of laziness)

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives

Burke, Kenneth Language as Symbolic Action

Burke, Kenneth. Permanence and Change

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 

Heidegger, Martin. "Letter on Humanism." Basic Writings

Muckelbauer, John. The Future of Invention. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm impressed with your blog. I need to re-read this post, but I found your comments on Heidegger to be quite helpful. Looking forward to a closer reading. We seem to share some interests. Thanks.