Heidegger and Language

As of late I have been concerned with the nature of language and how it is interpreted through speech acts. A speech act is in general an act of communication (Bach, 984). Following a tradition of deconstruction, speech acts are subject to close examination illustrating the endless conflicting meaning, showing that any proposed meaning can be undermined by careful attention to the role of subsidiary themes within a speech act (Gutting 830-31). Although not a deconstructionist, John Searle seemingly illustrates the same propensity toward the task of deconstruction[1].

In either regard, language is shown to be subject to a deconstruction of sorts: words chosen (constituting a speech act) by authors have the ability, if deconstructed, to draw the reader’s attention away from the intention of the speech act. At this point I feel it pertinent to quote Heidegger on The Ontic Priority of the Question of Being and afterward show the prevalence of this quote:

Da-sein is a being that does not simply occur among other beings. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that in its being this being is concerned about its very being. Thus it is constitutive of the being of Da-sein to have, in its very being, a relation of being to this. And this in turn means that Da-sein understands itself in its being in some way and with some explicitness. It is proper to this being that it be disclosed to itself with and through its being. Understanding of being is itself a determination of being of Da-sein. The ontic distinction of Da-sein lies in the fact that it is ontological. (Heidegger, 10)

I am invariably of the opinion that language is a constitutive of Da-sein and being. Having said this I can now show the prevalence of Heidegger’s quote in relation to language by paraphrasing- somewhat:


Language, constitutive of being is and in this sense does not simply occur among other beings (beings as differentiated modes of being). Rather language is ontically distinguished by the fact that in its being, language is concerned about its very being. Thus it is constitutive of the being of language to have in its very being, a relation of being to this. And this in turn means that language understands itself in its being in some way and with some explicitness. It is proper to this being that language be disclosed to itself with and through its being. Understanding language is itself a determination of being of Da-sein. The ontic distinction of language lies in the fact that it is ontological.

Having now defined the ontological property of language as such, I will now illustrate the primordial understanding of language. Language itself is a structure, that is, the parts of language i.e. words are organised in a way that function as language. As such, language as a function is hereby understood as a context. Employing the functional capabilities of language as a context underlines the concept of primordial understanding. We understand language and ought to invariably interpret language on our understanding of its relation to itself. This is to suggest that we understand the meaning of a speech act in contextual relation to prior or preceding speech acts. An example to illustrate:

“This book is good; it provides necessary information needed to complete my essay.”

If we deconstruct this speech act, one could interpret varying implications: “this book is morally excellent …”, “this book is right …”, “this book is competent …” etc, etc. Deconstructively, this sentence inherently means different things and looses the intention of the speech act (not to be interpreted as conjunctive to authorial intention). Instead, one ought to interpret this speech act contextually. For example: “This book is good; as it provides necessary information needed to complete my essay” is not a moral statement, nor is it a statement on what is proper; it is a statement on what is satisfactory for the purpose of completing my essay.

In the context of this argument, ‘deconstruction’ misses the point. If we understand language as a contextual phenomenon, then we can understand language’s ontological premise, that is, it illustrates the current condition of being. With this in mind, it is apt to point out that metaphor confuses language with nature (Baldick, 173).

What is illustrated by de Man’s suspicions is that the nature of metaphor allows itself to be deconstructed. Metaphor is a imaginary expression of language, and thus confuses itself with the nature of language as defining the current (I use the word ‘current’ loosely) ontological condition.

The way one ought to interpret meaning in speech acts is in no way deterministic. The act of interpretation is done so under social influences. It has been the purpose of this argument to illustrate that the deconstruction of speech acts loses all linguistic intention. In this regard speech acts invariably retain all linguistic intention when the ontological status on language is understood. In addition, speech acts will also retain linguistic intention if the contextual functionality of language is understood.


Posted by Nathan Everson






Baldick, Chris. Criticism and Literary Theory: 1890 to Present. New York: Longman Publishing, 1996.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Staunbaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996

The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Oxon: Routledge, 2005




Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License

[1] John R. Searle, Meaning and Speech Acts, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 71, No.4 (Cornell University, 1962) pp. 423-432.


9 Responses to “Heidegger and Language”

  1. 1 Waz April 29, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    Hey Nath,

    nice work mate. One day you will have to explain that quote from Heidegger you used…I didn’t understand it all 😦 Too many beings being interested in being interested in only their own being. hehe


  2. 2 Nathan April 29, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    Hey Waz,

    What Heidegger’s quote means is that Da-sein already has an understanding of itself in relation to being in the world. Basically, a primordial understanding of itself in relation to the world; remember the example of the hammer?


  3. 3 Kevin Winters April 30, 2007 at 9:54 pm

    I think you would do well to read Heidegger’s “The Way to Language” (can be found in Basic Writings). There he does argue that “language is a constitutive of Da-sein and being,” but not quite in your terms. Language, in its most primordial sense, is a kind of structure, but not one composed of words (i.e. Saussure’s understanding of language as a coherent collection of interrelated signs). One can multiply words till the cows come home and yet not really say anything; one can also not speak a word and yet say volumes. To start and stop at the level of words is to stop too soon, very much akin to traditional ontology’s starting and stopping at beings and thereby forgetting the question of being.

    Language as language is primarily a matter of showing:

    What unfolds essentially in language is saying and pointing. Its showing does not culminate in a system of signs. Rather, all signs arise from a showing in whose realm and for whose purposes they can be signs. (“The Way to Language,” Basic Writings, 410)

    If this is right, I don’t think we can say that language as (ontological) language is context. But language (as showing or letting appear to another) itself is possible only on the background of a world that allows beings to appear. Furthermore, if our language is really to say anything to another, they must share a similar context (or horizon, if we bring Gadamer into this).

    But (somewhat contrary to what I just said) there is a sense where language as a “context” can be understood. In Being and Time Heidegger speaks of an “articulation” (Artikulation) of being that allows entities to appear to us in the light of this pre-understanding of their being, which pre-understanding/pre-articulation is constitutive of Dasein (B&T (M&R, Trans.), 27-28/H8). This articulating is mentioned in “The Way to Language” as the rift-design (der Aufriss), or the cutting up or clearing away a space wherein beings can be brought to light in their being (a good precursor to the “clearing”). But this understanding must remember the equiprimordial relation between the different modalities of Dasein’s being–language is only possible within the constellation of world, mood (Befindlichkeit), the “one” (das Man), etc.

    Just some thoughts from a Heideggerian enthusiast (see my blog for more).

  4. 4 Kevin Winters April 30, 2007 at 10:07 pm


    To build on what Nathan said: Dasein understands itself in terms of its being-in-the-world by understanding itself in terms of the entities and projects that it dwells in/with (i.e. the world). Thus, as a student I understand myself in terms of universities, teachers, homework, midterms, finals, GPAs, graduation, tuition (would love to not be understood in relation to that), classrooms, particular University traditions, etc. I am not some self-contained Cartesian subject that is only contingently related to a world (Heidegger’s primary problem with Cartesianism), but a being that is essentially related to a world and, despite the dominant Cartesian ethos, I actually do understand myself in terms of that world rather than as a self-contained substance that is what it is by virtue of its necessary properties. Furthermore, if I am not understood in relation to a set of necessary properties that are present, but rather in terms of a dynamic relation to beings and projects/possibilities, then I also understand myself as being within time, the three-fold temporality of thrownness (past), fallenness (present), and projection (future). The Cartesian understanding of my being as present and presence is inadequate and, if it plays any role at all, constitutes a very limited part of my self-understanding.

    Heidegger will address this more in his later works where he criticizes Being and Time as relying too much on presence in relation to being and, as in “On the Essence of Truth,” comes to see absence (i.e. non-truth) as equally essential to being. This is at least one of the reasons why Heidegger sees his earlier works as remaining ‘metaphysical’–they bought into the ‘metaphysical’ understanding of being as presence. This does not mean, though, that Being and Time is worthless (far from it!): it is an essential step on the way to answering the question of being. But perhaps, given being’s essence, we are always on the way (an open question, I think).

  5. 5 Nathan May 1, 2007 at 12:32 am


    This is absolutely fantastic. I never thought I’d get a response outside those who contribute, let alone two responses as in depth as yours. I will indeed track down a copy of Basic Writings.

    I find Heidegger’s philosophy totally encapsulating, though as you can imagine, as a first year undergraduate I do need some guidance. On this note, I will be eagerly dropping by your blogs very soon.

    Cheers, Nathan.

  6. 6 Kevin Winters May 1, 2007 at 4:07 am

    I recently set up a thing on Google that lets me know whenever the key words I enter show up online (have Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricoeur right now), and your post showed up. I don’t get a chance to discuss this kind of thing very often, so I enjoy it when I can (and when I have time for it).

    Heidegger is very tough, but also very rewarding, from my experience. But you have a head start on me: I didn’t get into Heidegger until my 3rd year in my undergraduate studies and have been reading his thought (and other post-Heideggerians) since (been about 4 years now, I think). I’m currently in a psychology MA program at University of West Georgia and hope to apply to PhD philosophy and psychology programs by the end of the year. My thesis is dealing with the question of free will set against the backdrop of depression (i.e. the question of free will as one modality of the phenomenon of depression), mostly concerned with providing a non-neurophysiological approach to both (which approach is all the rage right now in philosophy and psychology). Still don’t know if my ideas will work, but I’m excited to get started on it this summer.

    A warning on my blog: I haven’t done much on it since this has been a horrendously difficult semester. But pretty soon I’ll be doing a series of posts related to my thesis as well as finishing up some summaries that I’ve started, including finishing up “On the Essence of Truth,” one Ricoeur article (that, after recent reading, I feel more equipped to tackle), and a piece by Charles Taylor on Merleau-Ponty and foundationalism (also very pertinent for Heidegger, whom Taylor also uses). So, hopefully it will pick up soon… :o)

  7. 7 Simon May 4, 2007 at 8:59 pm

    Interesting post Nath, even more so in that I am not well versed in Heidegger. Great to see another commentator too. I have a quick question for you though, and please, excuse my naivety.

    In looking at language from a linguistic perspective does Heidegger’s position have equal weight when applied to different languages and literary heritages? For example, your concluding paragraph claims that the process of deconstruction leads to the removal of linguistic intention. Does this claim have equal weight across different languages and/or language groups and what about throughout history? For example, in the use of Axel Olrik’s ‘laws’ and how they relate to sage, saga, sagn, & marchen? It could be argued, I would imagine, that in sage, for example, there is not too much scope for literary flair so would Heidegger’s position still be applicable, or to a lesser extent, in this case?

  8. 8 Nathan May 5, 2007 at 3:06 am


    For those of us who are not familiar with Olrik, his “laws”, and how they relate to sage, saga, sagn, and marchen, perhaps you could flesh it out a little for us. Particularly myself, so as I am able to post a reply comment.

  9. 9 Simon May 6, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    Sorry Nath, I completely missed your comment. Maybe using Olrik etc. isn’t necessary; I’ll try to show you where I was heading.

    Olrik composed numerous laws that dealt with determining the literary or oral heritage of early pieces of literature in what was thought were newly emerging literate societies. sage etc. are the ‘folk tales’ (my term) of numerous nordic societies.

    What I was getting at was the peoples of the nordic regions who, according to Olrik, were newly using written languages didn’t have the literary flair to even follow a particular genre etc. Would a process of deconstruction have the same weight when applied to these ‘texts’ in relation to more ‘modern’ examples?

    I know Olrik isn’t particularly popular however that’s beside the point. What I’m trying to ask is if a situation like the one Olrik describes exists, namely the emerging and unconfident use of writing, then does Heidegger’s position still hold and, if so, does it have equal weight with analogous ‘modern’ examples?

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