The “Letter on Humanism”: Ek-sistence, Being, and Language

Andrew J. Mitchell

The famed “Letter on ‘Humanism’” was a response to French philosopher Jean Beaufret, who wrote to Heidegger on November 10, 1946 posing a number of questions relating to the issue of humanism and asking what role, if any, remains for humanism in Heidegger’s thinking. The response, initially entitled “On ‘Humanism’: Letter to Jean Beaufret, Paris,” was Heidegger’s first publication after the Second World War.1 Given that its author was under a teaching ban imposed by the French Denazification committee at this time, it could be said to be the first public appearance of the man Heidegger as well. As such, the “Letter” provides Heidegger with a forum for presenting himself and his thinking anew, something of which Heidegger takes full advantage. The letter is at great pains to read Heidegger’s current thoughts as continuous with what has gone before. As such, it is a central document in what has been called Heidegger’s “self-interpretation.”2 It also provides a forum for him to publicly demonstrate his ties with French philosophy and his lack of animosity in this regard.3 The topic of humanism likewise allows him surreptitiously to distance himself from a Nazi regime that was roundly condemned as barbarous and inhuman.4 Along with these personal and political contexts, the letter has provided new avenues for appreciating Heidegger’s thinking, whether by connecting it back to the Renaissance (as per the work of Grassi) or running ahead to deconstruction (where it figures in Derrida’s essay “The Ends of Man”). It is likewise noteworthy for the relation it articulates between ethics and ontology, for its considerations of animality, and for its provocative remarks on the holy and the divine.

Granting the importance of these moments of context and consequence in and for the “Letter,” at its heart it is a thorough statement of the interrelation between the human, being, and language, and it is to this interrelation that the following will attend. Indeed, the three are brought together on the very first page, where Heidegger tells us: “Language is the house of being. In its accommodation dwells the human” (GA 9, 313/PA 239, tm). Only by thinking through this constellation of human, being, and language can any questions concerning humanism be addressed.

The letter begins by reflecting on thinking and its inextricable connection to language (GA 9, 313–19/PA, 239–44). As thinking and language have been considered distinctive of the human, the “Letter” then turns to the issue of humanism, tracing its history through the Renaissance adoption of the Roman appropriation of the late-Greek concept of παιδεία. This history is complemented by consideration of humanisms prevailing at the time, specifically, those of Marxism, existentialism, and Christianity (GA 9, 319–23/PA, 244–7). As all of these address the nature of human existence, whether wittingly or not, the next section of the letter turns to Heidegger’s own notion of existence (GA 9, 323–9/PA, 247– 51). Since this notion of existence relates to being—is, in fact, a relation to being—what follows is a presentation of Heidegger’s current understanding of being (GA 9, 329–37/PA, 251–7), including discussion of the “forgetting” of being and the homelessness that this entails (GA 9, 337–44/PA, 257–62). After this treatment of human existence and being, the letter returns to the question of humanism, responding to possible objections to the view (GA 9, 344–52/PA, 262–8), expounding some of the ethical consequences of the position reached (GA 9, 352–61/PA, 268–74), and concluding as it began with further reflections on the nature of thinking (GA 9, 361–4/PA, 274–6). What comes into focus across all of this is a new interrelation between human existence, being, and language.

For Heidegger, humanism has always been a concern that the human should remain human, that is to say, that it keep to its humanity and not become inhuman. Humanism is thus a matter of the human retaining its humanity, or rather, its essence: “in what does the humanity of the human being consist? It lies in his essence” (GA 9, 319/PA, 244). And yet precisely this essence is what has been distorted by the history of metaphysics, for, according to Heidegger, the “essence” of the human, “lies in its ek-sistence [Ek-sistenz]” (GA 9, 325/PA, 247) and this “ek-sistence” has been mischaracterized traditionally as existentia, or the “actuality” of a subtending essentia, or “possibility.” As Heidegger explains, “The statement: ‘The human ek-sists’ is not an answer to the question of whether the human actually is or not; rather, it responds to the question concerning the ‘essence’ of the human” (GA 9, 327/PA, 249, tm). To address Beaufret’s question concerning humanism thus requires thinking further into the essence of the human, that is, ek-sistence.

The term itself, ek-sistence, is hyphenated so as to emphasize the prefix ek-, and the exteriorization that it entails. Ek-sistence is outside of itself. It is ecstatic, as Heidegger had already observed in Being and Time . And as that text shows, Dasein has its being to be, it is always already ahead of itself, always futural. This futural nature of Dasein is coincident with its own “thrownness.” Dasein is thrown into the world, with its being “to be,” and in the midst of its thrownness projects its existence. This way of being is a way of being “outside” of itself, no longer one condemned to the prison house of the ego. It is an ecstatic existence.

What the “Letter” proposes, however, is that we understand this ecstatic ek-sistence now in terms of a standing “in.” As Heidegger makes plain in the letter, “Such standing in the clearing of being I call the ek-sistence of the human” (GA 9, 323–4/PA, 247, tm). The human is outside of itself, but this does not place it in some kind of void. Instead, the human that stands out (ek-stasis) is standing in (in-herence) the “truth” of being: “the way that the human in his proper essence presences to being is ecstatic inherence [Innestehen] in the truth of being” (GA 9, 330/PA, 251, tm). We will return to this notion of a “truth” of being presently, for now, let us simply note that to be “out” is to be “in.” Indeed, that only by being outside of oneself, that is, by being no longer encapsulated in an ego, can one really be exposed to anything at all. Only when the refuge of the ego shell is abandoned, can our ecstatic, exposed existence be permeated by being and stand in it: “Ek-sisting, he [the human] stands in [steht . . . in] the dispensation [Geschick] of being” (GA 9, 336/PA, 256, tm). “Inherence” is another name for exposure.

But Dasein would not ecstatically stand in anything at all, if being were not receptive to that stance. Dasein has its being “outside” of itself, it is “inherently” ecstatic. But all this is so much as to say that the “outside” in question is nothing empty. There is a “there” there (Da-sein). It is the there of being. The ecstatic existence of Dasein is an entrance into being. For lack of a better word, being is the “medium” for this ecstatic appearance. And to be sure, one of the most intriguing aspects of the “Letter” is the variety of ways in which it presents this medial nature of being itself. Being is thought here expansively. Heidegger alternately speaks of the “house of being,” the “nearness of being,” the “clearing of being,” the “light of being,” the “open of being,” and “being as the element” (in the sense of one’s fitting environs). In all these senses, what is at stake is not something contained, but instead a realm, an arena, a field of appearance. In what follows, I will refer to being in this sense as a “medium” for appearing, though the term will require some elaboration to defend against understanding it as simply a space between otherwise present entities.

Given this expansive, medial character, Heidegger can write, “being is essentially broader [weiter] than all beings and is equally nearer to the human than any being” (GA 9, 331/PA, 252, tm), adding later “so is being essentially broader [weiter] than all beings, because it is the clearing itself” (GA 9, 337/PA, 256). The breadth of being is its expansive character. Being is not a being. But it is also not without relation to beings. Being is an expanse for appearance, a medium. Heidegger identifies being in the text as this openness, “he [the human] stands out in the open of being, which is being itself” (GA 9, 350/PA, 266, tm), or, again, as clearing, “the clearing itself is being” (GA 9, 332/PA, 253). Being is the open and the clearing. In this context, “truth” is equally a term of expansion, that is, the “truth of being” is the breadth of being, hence locutions such as the “dimension of the truth of being,” the “house of the truth of being,” and “the element of the truth of being,” merely to name a few.

We might take what Heidegger says at the outset of the letter in regards to “the element” as bearing on this entire list of expansive names for being. Heidegger explains that, “the element is authentically that which enables: the enabling” (GA 9, 316/PA, 241, tm). Being as element enables beings. It makes them “possible” (möglich). But the relation here must be more carefully understood, instead of a “making” crudely construed, it is more of a letting be, it lets beings “essence,” using the word as a verb. Being as element is what lets beings be what they are and lets them be this essentially. This sense of “essence” is a way of being of these beings. It is a way of being that “affiliates” (mögen) them to the medium, to being. In so doing, beings exhibit a certain relationality. When beings are construed as objects situated in a void and standing apart from a subject, there is no relation, only encapsulation. Heidegger notes in the text how “the dominance of subjectivity” leads to “the metaphysically conditioned establishment and authorization of the openness of beings in the unconditional objectification of (GA 9, 317/PA, 242). And nevertheless, “what something is in its being is not exhausted by its being an object” (GA 9, 349/PA, 265, tm). There is “more” to the being of things than objectivity. This surplus is its relation or affiliation to being, its belonging to its element. This relationality is prior to objectification. It occurs within “the openness [die Offenheit] of being,” within “the open region [Offene] that first clears the ‘between’ within which a ‘relation’ of subject to object can ‘be’” (GA 9, 350/PA, 266, tm).

In this thinking of the element of being, the element that makes beings possible, Heidegger recasts the notion of a “condition of possibility” in terms of a letting be whereby the particular being is “affiliated” to the medium in which it appears. Such a “condition” of possibility is not indifferent to that which appears within it. Being and beings are affiliated and held in a relation to one another (this is the importance of the etymological connection between medium as enabling, vermögen, the possible, das Mögliche, and affiliation, mögen). Ek-sistence does not stand in a void, but participates in a medium. That medium is being. But it is not a medium in the sense of an independent, indifferent third thing (or void) that would intervene between two otherwise present entities. Instead, the medium “likes” what appears in it, lets it essence.

But it is not enough to construe being as a “medium” in this way. Being might still seem a container for ek-sistence. Indeed, for the ecstaticity of ek-sistence, being can be no void, but it can likewise be no plenum either. If ek-sistence is exposed and permeated by being, then that being cannot be stagnant, it must be always arriving. Heidegger thinks this in terms of a sending, whereby being is given or sent to us, not so as to have already arrived in full, but as being underway, arriving at us. His term for this is Geschick, which is typically rendered “fate” or “destiny,” both fitting terms, but terms that tend to obscure the connection with sending (schicken). Thus, in what follows, Geschick shall be rendered “dispensation” with the understanding that one’s fate lies in an accommodation to the dispensed. What is dispensed, however, is being. Now every giving, every dispensation, is a testament to the distance traversed. We are reached by what is given both despite and on account of that distance. Thus every giving requires that something be held back, such that this distance may be marked. In the words of the letter: “Being comes to its dispensation in that It, being, gives itself. But this says, thought dispensationally: It gives itself and refuses itself simultaneously” (GA 9, 335/PA, 255, tm). Only through such a refusal can it reach us at all. It reaches us without ever becoming entirely present. It comes extended in this way, spaced from us. It comes, in short, as a clearing: “This dispensation takes place as the clearing of being” (GA 9, 337/PA, 257, tm). Put more elaborately: “only so long as the clearing of being takes place does being convey itself to human beings. But the fact that the Da, the clearing as the truth of being itself, takes place is the sending [Schickung] of being itself. This is the dispensation [Geschick] of the clearing” (GA 9, 336/PA, 257, tm).

The dispensation is also thought by Heidegger in terms of a “claim” (Anspruch), something that metaphysics in its objectifying tendencies is unable to hear: “Metaphysics excludes the simple essential condition that the human only essences in its essence in that it is addressed [angesprochen] by being. Only from out of this claim [Anspruch] ‘has’ he found that wherein his essence resides” (GA 9, 323/PA, 247, tm). Ecstatic Ek-sistence resides in a medium always addressing it, encroaching on it, pouring in on it. Ek-sistence is immersion, properly understood. The coming of being can likewise be cast in terms of an arriving (being as das Ankommende), with Heidegger observing that “thinking is related to being as to what arrives (l’avenant)” (GA 9, 363/PA, 275). Indeed, thinking is nothing other than exposing oneself to this arrival and letting oneself be marked (claimed) by it. The mark of the claim is attested in language.

Language names the interface between ek-sistence and the coming of being. Heidegger’s concern in the “Letter” with thinking is ultimately a concern with language. Thinking, the metaphysical privilege of the human, is an exposing of oneself to the dispensation, claim, and arriving of being such that this advent be brought to language. Heidegger could not be more clear: “To bring to language ever and again this arriving of being [Ankunft des Seins] . . . is the sole matter of thinking” (GA 9, 363/PA, 275, tm). Indeed, for being to arrive at all, for there to be a sending, it must be remarked. Otherwise there would be oblivion. Language is thus more than an ex post facto testament to the arrival of being, it is that arriving itself: “Language is the clearing-concealing arriving [Ankunft] of being itself” (GA 9, 326/PA, 249, tm).

If language is the efflorescence of this contact between ecstatic ek-sistence and the dispensation of being, the effulgence of the interface between these two movements, all language becomes testimony. Language is the preservation of this event. As such, it entails a sheltering function, as in the famous claim from the very first page of the letter: “Language is the house [Haus] of being. In its accommodation [Behausung] dwells the human” (GA 9, 313/PA, 239, tm).

But what language preserves of this event must itself be protected. For under the reign of subjectivity, language “falls into the service of expediting communication along routes where objectification—the uniform accessibility of everything to everyone—branches out and disregards all limits” (GA 9, 317/PA, 242). Thinkers and poets are the ones who attend to language in a way that breaks with its traditional construal as language of a subject (understood on the basis of the animal rationale, see GA 9, 333/PA, 254). They do not insist on language as means of expediting information transfer, but allow it to trace the contour of eksistence and being, to be shaped by that juncture and announce that contact. They are the “guardians” of the house, as Heidegger explains, “Those who think and poetize are the guardians [Wächter] of this accommodation. Their guardianship [Wachen] accomplishes [Vollbringen] the openness of being, insofar as they bring this to language through their saying and preserve it [aufbewahren] in language” (GA 9, 313/PA, 239, tm).

By guarding (wahren) and preserving (aufbewahren), a protected space (a house and accommodation) is created. Within the space of this protection—otherwise known as “truth” (Wahrheit)—what appears does so as protected. The true (das Wahre) is protected (bewahrt). The claim of being that reaches the human, the call of being, is a call to participate in such protection, the truth of being. The question of “humanism” and “human dignity” must be reoriented around this fact. The human becomes shepherd: “The human is the shepherd of being . . . whose dignity consists in being called by being itself into the guardianship of its truth [ Wahrnis seiner Wahrheit]” (GA 9, 342/PA, 260, tm). To hear the call is to let oneself be addressed by the claim of being and thus to attest to the ecstaticity of ek-sistence. To hear the call is to be struck by it and as a human this means to bring it into language.

In all we have said, being has marked itself in language. At the close of the letter, however, Heidegger suggests a reciprocal movement whereby thinking sets its mark in language, too: “With its saying, thinking lays inconspicuous furrows in language. They are still more inconspicuous than the furrows that the farmer, slow of step, draws through the field” (GA 9, 364/PA, 276). Language attests to the belonging together of the human and being. Any humanism must begin from this.

Notes and References

1 It was first published in the 1947 volume Plato’s Doctrine of Truth (Bern: Verlag A. Francke, 1947), as something of an appendix behind a reprinting of the title essay on Plato from 1942. A headnote to the volume states: “The attached letter is to Jean Beaufret (Paris) as a response to questions posed in his letter of November 10, 1946. The questions arose from the French translation of the lecture [Plato’s Doctrine of Truth] prepared by Josef Rovan” (Platons Lehre, 4). Beaufret’s letter to Heidegger is printed in François Fédier, L’Humanisme en Question: Pour aborder la lecture de la “Lettre sur l’humanisme” de Martin Heidegger (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2012), 14–15. Plato’s Doctrine of Truth was a volume in the series “Überlieferung und Auftrag” (Tradition and Mission) edited by Ernesto Grassi and Wilhelm Szilasi. Grassi had previously published the Plato essay in the second issue of his journal Geistige Überlieferung (Spiritual Tradition). Nevertheless, due to the circumstances of the war, a reprinting of the essay was in order. Heidegger himself pointed to the treatment of this essay as evidence of the antagonism between him and the National Socialist party. In a November 11, 1945 letter to the rectoral committee of his university, Heidegger cites a National Socialist directive that states: “The essay by Martin Heidegger, ‘Plato’s Doctrine of Truth,’ in the Journal for Spiritual Tradition, shortly to appear with Helmut Küpper Publishers, Berlin, shall be neither reviewed nor named. Heidegger’s participation in this second volume of the journal, which otherwise can be thoroughly discussed, is not to be mentioned” (GA 16, 403). The headnote to the 1947 volume repeats these claims, “mention in the press and review was forbidden, publication as a separate printing was likewise denied” (Platons Lehre, 4). Grassi thus had some reason to see to a second publication of the essay five years after its first appearance. The letter, despite its second billing in the volume (the title page identifies the volume as Plato’s Doctrine of Truth with a Letter on “Humanism”), is actually much longer than the essay it follows (66 pages for the letter vs. 47 for the essay).

2 The “Letter” is a strongly retrospective affair, with Heidegger referencing all of his published works from Being and Time to date. Indeed, he cites Being and Time no less than 30 times in the course of the essay, along with Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, “What Is Metaphysics?” “On the Essence of Reason,” and “On the Essence of Truth.” On equal footing with these works he also cites all four of the Hölderlin essays he had published up to this point. Indeed, the only major publication that is not cited is the infamous Rectoral address, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” though critical reference is made in the letter to collectivism as completing “the unconditional self-assertion [Selbstbehauptung]” of individualism (GA 9, 341–2). On Heidegger’s self-interpretation as a whole, see Friedrich Wilhelm von Herrmann, Die Selbstinterpretation Martin Heideggers (Meisenheim am Glan: Anton Hain, 1964).

3 The French connection is well documented. The seminal work in this is Dominique Janicaud, Heidegger en France, 2 vols. (Paris: Hachette Littératures, 2005). A key text is also Frédéric de Towarnicki, À la rencontre de Heidegger: Souvenirs d’un messager de la Forêt-Noire (Paris: Gallimard, 1993). Details surrounding the “Letter” can also be found in Fédier, L’humanisme en question .

4 There is not much to be directly gleaned about his relation to National Socialism in the “Letter.” He makes critical comment of the “self-assertion” (Selbstbehauptung) of individualism, which could be seen as a retort to his own Rectoral Address, “The Self-Assertion of the German University” (see GA 9, 341–2/PA, 260), and he closes the letter with words that could apply to his own silence regarding the events of the war. The “fittingness of thoughtful saying,” he writes, requires that we “ponder whether what is to be thought is to be said—to what extent, at what moment of the history of being, in what sort of dialogue with this history, and on the basis of what claim, it ought to be said” (GA 9, 363/PA, 276).