Heidegger, Patočka – and Technology (Response to George Pattison)

By Martin Koci

Since we have heard about the poetic nature of speech, and even about the redemptive power of the poetic language, I would like to start my response to Prof. Pattison’s fascinating paper with a short poem by Emily Dickinson:

By homely gift and hindered Words
The human heart is told
Of Nothing —
‘Nothing’ is the force
That renovates the World

Poetry, literature but also philosophy and even theology consist in pointing beyond the instrumental understanding of language as we often find it in mathematics, logic, natural science and other discourses, which claim to be representational and purely descriptive. As if the language was a tool ‘present-at-hand’ which is possible to use. Against this ‘techno-scientific’ mentality of post-Cartesian world, Heidegger argues that ‘human beings belong to language.’ As Prof. Pattison reminds us, “Language is what makes us human.”

I find this thesis intriguing. To understand it better, I will draw inspiration from the Czech phenomenologist Jan Patočka, a student of Husserl and a follower of Heidegger. In his Habilitationschrift on The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem, Chapter ‘A Sketch of the Philosophy of Language and Speech,’ Patočka elucidates the meaning of the above-mentioned Heideggerian line of thought concerning the foundational importance of language for our very being.

What is language? Patočka says that from the perspective of the subject, the prior experience is not a language but speech. The act of speaking is a more or less successful attempt to use various means of expression for communication; the communication with the others as well as the communication of the person with herself. In this sense, the speech is the present form of language. However, language as such is not consciously experienced in our normal way of speaking. We recognise that there is something like language, for example, when we speak in a foreign language (as I do now) because at that moment we realize that our means of expression is limited and that language is something bigger than our present form of using it.

Nonetheless, the active speech is not our only experience with the limits of language. More original is perhaps the passive speech which goes continually in our heads, by which Patočka apparently refers to thinking. To have a thought (der Gedanke) means to formulate a thought. However, as Patočka reminds us, a thought is never a closed unit. We speak about developing thoughts and ideas. We recognize that thoughts might have variations and contain diverse possibilities. Although there might be a well-expressed centre of the idea, it does not exclude its peripheries. In short, for Patočka, a thought is something constantly escaping from our possession. In this sense, language is the limit of our thinking, however, this limit points beyond itself and motivates us to think further. (As I can work on my English to express myself better, I can adopt the task of thinking as exploring new ways of formulating my thoughts and ideas). This shows us that language points beyond itself, opens the future. Thus, to complement Heidegger’s thesis with Patočka, language is thinking and thinking is that what makes us human.

For this reason, Heidegger rightly fears (as well as Patočka) the reduction of language to a mere instrument. The substitution of the event of speech for the technology of language, and in this sense also the substitution of the task of thinking for technical rationality means the objectification of our being-in-the-world. Following the instrumental logic of language, it is possible to master objects in the world and even the highest object—God—who is beyond the world. Not to talk about Patočka all the time, the father of philosophical postmodernism Jean-Francois Lyotard criticizes the instrumental ‘language pragmatics’ in his Le differend, where he uncovers a potential hegemony of language if the language is taken as a set of rules for linking phrases. These are possible meanings of danger in Heidegger.

However, the effort of our postmodern epoch to overcome the techné of language points to another danger. There are some tendencies, especially among authors who belong to the so-called theological turn in contemporary philosophy, to overcome language as such. For example, Caputo’s search for religion without religion can be translated as the search for religion without the contamination of language. Similarly, Marion’s plea for “a new understanding of God as pure giving,” presupposes a universal pre-linguistic structure of religion. Something is given and the naming of this givenness is only a posteriori response of otherwise passive subject in a totally asymmetrical relationship with the Other.

In one way or another, the concepts of language as an instrument and language as an obstacle are symptoms of our crisis. In this sense, Prof. Pattison rightly points out that the crisis of modernity is a crisis of language. I would only add, following Patočka’s analysis, that the crisis of language is a crisis of thinking. This has interesting implications for theology. One of those who has recognized the link between the crisis of language and the task of thinking is Jean-Yves Lacoste. In his recent book, Lacoste suggests moving from the techné of theology (and its technical language) to the task of theological thinking. What should be the language of theological thinking?

Prof. Pattison’s paper suggests that it should be a poetic language. If poetry opens possibilities of a saving power (for language and thus for our thinking), and leads to the encounter with a ‘new God-to-come’ in the time of overwhelming nothingness, it seems to me that there is no reason to fear that this saving power is, in Patočka’s words, nothing; nothing like a thing; no-thing. Language is not a thing; that’s something what poetry can show us. Theology’s task and potential is to reveal that our thoughts are not things and the One we think of and name in our words is no-thing at all. And this brings me back to a poem by Emilly Dickinson I read at the beginning of my response.

By homely gift and hindered Words
The human heart is told
Of Nothing —
‘Nothing’ is the force
That renovates the World

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