What's in a Word?
Heidegger's Grammar and Etymology of “Being”

Gregory Fried

When Chapter 2 of Introduction to Metaphysics opens, Heidegger reminds us that he has just concluded a long exposition of the fact that "for us Being is just an empty word and an evanescent meaning" (40). According to Heidegger, Being, Sein, has almost completely lost its force and meaning as a word, and more important, as a question that arises in the form of a word within the context of a particular language. The lecture course began with the question, "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" Heidegger quickly shows that this question about beings and nothing is in fact a question about Being (which must be distinguished from beings). But the force of the argument in Chapter 1 is to show that the question of Being as such has been obscured in the unfolding of Western history and thought, and that, indeed, the loss of sense of the question of Being is the mark of a profound and nihilistic "spiritual decline" (29) in the West. According to Heidegger, because we have forgotten that authentically responding to this question of Being constitutes "the spiritual fate of the West," Europe lies on the brink of disaster, with the German people at once most at peril (caught in "the great pincers between Russia . . . and America") and also most called to historical responsibility as the people with the "vocation" to uphold the spiritual and geographic "center" of Europe and the West (28-29).

In this chapter, I will attempt four things: (1) to explain how Heidegger arrives at a discussion of the grammar and etymology of the word "Being" in the development of his larger argument; (2) to make sense of Heidegger's analysis through a synopsis of his treatment of this grammar and etymology; (3) to evaluate Heidegger's argument with respect to our current understanding of philology and linguistics; and (4) to close with a prospectus on the work that remains to be done. My efforts here will be, for the most part, propaedeutic, which is to say that I do not expect to lay the issue to rest but rather to clarify Heidegger's position for the new reader and to call on advanced scholars to take up the philosophical challenge of the history of the word "Being."

1. The role of the "linguistic" argument in Introduction to Metaphysics

Heidegger's claims about the word "Being" may appear exaggerated, to say the least. How can a word, or a concept, lie at the basis of the history of the West? But this is precisely the point Heidegger has been trying to make in Chapter 1. We have lost our sense that what is said in one word, this word, may well underlie everything that is worth thinking about, that the question of Being is indeed the question of meaning per se, and that a failure to respond to the question of what it means "to be," to take it as settled or as merely meaningless (an "empty" word, a "vapor"), is to fail in our calling as human beings, or, more properly, as "Dasein." As Heidegger makes clear in his plays on the German word Einführung (15), his lecture course aspires to a kind of philosophical Führung, a leading-in to the reawakening of the question of Being for the German people, "the metaphysical Volk" (29).

For Heidegger, the question of Being is a question about language because meaning itself, the way we understand the world as the home for our own "to be," is constituted by language. As Heidegger says famously in a later essay, "language is the house of Being."1 Although Heidegger is concerned with language as such, just as he is with Being as such, language is always concretely manifested in particular languages, as Being is in beings. In 1935, the date of the Introduction to Metaphysics lecture course, Heidegger is in particular concerned with the German language and its role as the home for a thinking that might save the West. With this we see the import of Heidegger's effort at a Führung, a leadership of his own, in the context of the National Socialist regime. He gives a quick bow to the "organizations for the purification of language and for defense against its progressive mutilation"—and here, of course, he means the efforts of Nazi-oriented groups working against the "degeneration" of the German language. But in the next breath he takes this praise away: "Nevertheless, through such institutions one finally demonstrates only more clearly that one no longer knows what language is all about" (39). To treat language as a thing misapprehends the matter. Because the relation of a people, a Volk, to its language is grounded in that people's relation to the question of Being, a language can never be rescued merely by organizations or by laws devoted to its preservation. The preservation of language as a vital home depends on the rekindling of the question of Being, for Being and language are intimately intertwined in the question of what it means to be.

This is why Heidegger turns to the problem of the grammar and etymology of the word "Being" in Chapter 2. In order to understand why "Being" has become a virtually meaningless word to us, nearly incapable of inciting serious questioning and thought, Heidegger suggests that we begin by looking at the formal use of "Being" in language (its grammar) as well as its history as a word (its etymology). Linguistics may at least give us some "remnant of a connection" (40) to the meaning of this word, and so it may help us break open unanticipated avenues for philosophical questioning and for restoring its meaning.

2. Heidegger's argument concerning the grammar and etymology of "being"

Heidegger begins with the grammar taught to us all in childhood ("grammar school"). His initial point is that the basic categories of grammar in the West have been treated for more than two thousand years as simply self-evident (40-41). The Greek and Latin grammarians established the concepts of grammar as one of the domains of philosophy, but once established, these categories dropped out of philosophical debate and became taken for granted.2 Heidegger does not intend simply to toss this tradition away, but he does want to lay language radically open to question again, and to do so, he needs to dislodge the sedimentation of two thousand years of uncontested grammarian dogma. In this sense, Heidegger s "destruction" of the history of grammar mirrors in miniature the "destruction" of the history of philosophy that he has argued is necessary to revive the question of Being (SZ, 19-27). In particular, he wants to emphasize that language is not simply just another being, like an animal or a mineral, readily accessible to the circumscribed study of a scientific discipline. Language is not a being at all, but, like Being itself, it is what gives us access to all beings in the first place (41). The attempt to circumscribe language as if it were just another being is more than a category error. This is what Heidegger means by saying that an undertaking such as the grammarians' dissection of language "depends on the fundamental conception of Being that guides it" (41).

Heidegger begins his reflection on the specific grammar of the word "to be" with the observation that das Sein (Being) in German belongs to a class of words that produce a substantive, or noun, on the basis of the infinitive form of the verb, in this case, sein (to be) (42). Here arises a discrepancy between English and German that might lead to confusion. English, unlike German, does not form nouns on the basis of the infinitive, although other Indo-European languages do (the French l'être, for example); English uses the gerund, as in "Running is her favorite sport." So being, rather than the to be, is the substantive of the verb. German also produces substantives from participial forms: das Rennende is "that which runs," whereas das Rennen is the activity of running in general. Das Seiende is "that which is in being," a particular "being," to be distinguished from das Sein, Being in general—whatever that is! As we shall see, Heidegger insists that our sense of Being as something general is part of the problem.

Because the German noun Sein is based on the verb sein, Heidegger's next step is to examine these two grammatical forms: the substantive (das Sein) and the infinitive (sein). Here, Heidegger says, we seem to have stumbled onto one of the essential questions about language: whether the "primordial form" of any word is the noun or the verb (43). But he argues that this is in fact a pseudo-question generated by the classification system of the Greek and Latin grammarians (44), a system that has not received a "thoroughgoing investigation" for millennia (43).3 The grammarians' distinctions were inaugurated philosophically by the discussion of ὄνομα and ῥῆμα in Plato's Sophist (261 e ff.)

As Heidegger argues (44-45), ὄνομα and ῥῆμα in the context of Plato's Sophist do not yet mean the "noun" and "verb" of the grammarians' academic categorizations. In ordinary Greek, ὄνομα means "name" (and ὄνομα is in fact etymologically cognate with the English "name," as well as "noun"), and ῥῆμα means "that which is spoken," from the verb ῥέω, to say. Hence: "We call ῥῆμα that which reveals actions [δήλωμα ... πρᾱ́ξεσῖν]"; "And an ὄνομα is a spoken sign applied to things that do these actions"; finally: "Hence no statement [λόγος] is ever constructed by speaking onomata alone, and also not by ῥήματα spoken without onomata" (Sophist, 262a). The grammarians have taken this to mean that no statement (λόγος), no speech about what may be true or false, can be constructed merely by stringing together nouns alone or verbs alone. What we now call a "sentence" requires both noun and verb. According to Heidegger, though Plato's meaning is more complicated than this, the need is clear enough for a distinction between words that make manifest the beings with which we have doings and words that make manifest the doing itself. Aristotle (De Interpretation, 2-4) codified this distinction between words that signify without time (ὄνομα) and those that indicate time (ῥῆμα). Only when this distinction falls into the hands of the grammarians, becoming the familiar "noun" and "verb," does philosophical reflection gives way to mere academicism (44-45). Philosophy once investigated the Being of the things named, whereas grammar merely adjusts established categorizations.

At issue here is the nature of one form of the verb: the infinitive. This term is derived from the terminology of the Roman grammarians: modus infinitivus verbi, the mode of the verb that is not finite, that is not bound or definite. Heidegger displays his animus against the Latin translation of Greek: the "bland" Latin term modus (mode, manner) is the Romanization of the much more evocative Greek word ἔγκλισις , "an inclining to the side" (45), which in turn is related to πτῶσις, which means "any kind of inflection of the fundamental form ... not only in substantives but also in verbs" (45). The Greek πτῶσις becomes the Latin casus (as in our case of a noun), and ἔγκλισις becomes declinatio (as in our declension of a verb). But the original force of meaning in the Greek has been lost.

Here Heidegger begins his real work. He has argued that the understanding of language is intimately related to the understanding of Being. His argument now is that the Greeks understood Being as "taking and maintaining a stand" (46). That which takes a stand is necessarily con-stant; it endures, at least for a while, but in order to endure, it must delimit itself, must set itself within its own limits. For Heidegger, this Greek conception of limit (πέρας) and end as finitude (τέλος) is not the mark of deficiency or failure, but rather that which allows whatever is, to be. The end and the limit complete what stands there in itself, preventing it from slipping back into an undifferentiated muddle. "Limit and end are that whereby beings first begin to be" (46). Limit is what allows the differentiation that makes the being one thing rather than another (for example, "to sit" rather than "to fly"). Limit allows difference to take a stand, and so makes room for identity and constancy.

We might well ask what all this has to do with the infinitive as a grammatical form. We need to jump ahead here. Heidegger writes, "πτῶσις and ἔγκλισις mean to fall, to incline, that is, nothing other than to depart from the constancy of the stand and thus to deviate from it" (49). The declension of a verb describes this falling-away from the delimitation that maintains a being in its Being, in its constancy. Inflected forms of the verb, such as the present, the subjunctive, and so on, supposedly add something, as it were, to the word. Besides the infinitive "to speak," for example, we have "you speak," "they spoke," "I will speak," "it was spoken," "were he spoken to, he would speak," and so on. In Greek, says Heidegger, this declension of the verb is "an ἔγκλισις paremphatikos , a deviation, which is capable [as opposed to the putatively raw 'infinitive'] of making manifest in addition person, number, tense, voice, and mood" (51).

The Greek word παρεμφαίνω means "to show oneself along with something," and so the Greek sense of the inflected forms is that they "make something else manifest in addition, [they] allow it to arise and be seen in addition" (50). But the ἔγκλισις a-paremphatikos allows nothing to be seen "in addition" to the basic meaning of the verb. The Romans translated ἔγκλισις παρεμφατικός as modus infinitivus (51), a rendering that implies that, against the inflected forms that say something definite, the infinitive marks a deficiency, a lack of meaning. But Heidegger argues that in the Greek understanding, the ἔγκλισις παρεμφατικός is what grants us access to what the verb per se "means and makes manifest" (51). The Latin grammarians' treatment of the modus infinitivus, by contrast, indicates an abstraction from definite meaning; the infinitive eventually becomes the most abstract, the least meaningful form of the verb (51-52), useful perhaps as the name for a particular verb because it conveys only this generalized meaning.

This demotion of the importance of the infinitive as the site for reflection on the full meaning of the verb as such constitutes, for Heidegger, one of the chief causes for the modern notion that "to be" (das Sein, Being) is the most empty and general of words and concepts. The development of language, especially once the self-conscious reflections on grammar have taken hold, leads to innovations such as the verbal substantive based on the infinitive, such as τὸ εἶναι in Greek and das Sein in German. For Heidegger, this leads to the most telling confusion of all, the failure to distinguish Being from beings: "The substantive Sein implies that what is so named, itself 'is.' 'Das Sein' [Being] now itself becomes something that 'is,' whereas obviously only beings are, and it is not the case that Being also is" (53). What Heidegger says here about the noun formed on the infinitive is equally true of the gerund "Being" based on the participial form of "to be." For the unwary English reader, this "Being" is almost impossible to take as anything but a being, a thing, and thereby all sense of what might be at issue in the question of what it means to be may easily be lost. And English is even further at a remove than other Indo-European languages; we cannot even speak of "the 'to be/ " "Can it be any wonder to us now that Being is so empty a word ... ?" asks Heidegger, ironically. "This word 'Being' stands as a warning to us. Let us not be lured away into the emptiest of forms, the verbal substantive" (53). At the very least, Heidegger's sarcasm here should warn us against thinking that he considers Sein a kind of sacred word in and of itself, like Om in Sanskrit, whose mere verbal form and sound can yield enlightenment upon meditation or devotional repetition.4 That is to say, there is nothing about this particular word as a particular phoneme, with its own particular sound and form, that makes it somehow the key to all understanding. Of course, the details of this word's history, in German and more broadly in the Indo-European languages, have great significance for its meaning, and in this sense the specific word in question is crucial. But far more important than the word itself is what language, in its Being as a historical process within which we have our "home," is trying to bring to thought through the word. And though this is not Heidegger's point here; this matter-for-thought ought in principle to be available in any language.

The warning concerning the empty verbal substantive leads Heidegger to attempt an examination of Being through other definite forms of the verb, such as "I am," "you are," "he is," "they were," and so on (53). But now Heidegger runs into new problems. First of all, does saying "I am" bring me or you any closer to an understanding of Being itself? Our own Being is so close to each one of us that Heidegger says that indeed each is "furthest from himself." Saying "we are" is no more transparent, for it is unclear what unites "the plurality of Is" in Being (53). Moreover, it is unclear in what sense "Being" unites the many definite forms of the verb. Another puzzling feature of the verb augments this bewildering multiplicity, namely, that the various forms do not even seem to be based on the same root: I am, you are, he is, we were, they have been, and so on (similar variations are found throughout Indo-European languages). Whence this motley collection of forms that seem to bear no immediate relation to the "general" form of the verb in the infinitive (53-54)?

This brings Heidegger to the question of the etymology of "Being," and the several roots, or stems, of the various forms of the verb. Heidegger points to three stems for the morphemes of the German sein, and these have close correlates in English. The first stem is the Indo-European root es, which shows up in the English forms "am" and "is," as well as the Greek εἶναι (to be) and the German ist and sein. Heidegger suggests that the root meaning of this stem is "life, the living . . . the self-standing" (54). The second stem is the Indo-European root bhu or bheu, from which the English "be" and "been" arise, as well as the Greek φύσις (that which grows and shows itself forth; nature) and the German bin and bist. Heidegger suggests that the sense of this root is "to emerge, to hold sway, to come to a stand from out of itself and to remain standing" (54). Finally, the third stem is visible in German forms such as war and wesen, and the English was and were. The Indo-European root here is wes, to which the Greek ἄστυ (town, citadel) is related, and so we can see that lexically, this root does seem based in a sense of abiding. Modern linguistics supports Heidegger's treatment of the three roots, and, giving him some latitude, also his interpretation of the three basic meanings of the three roots es, bheu, and wes as "living, emerging, abiding" (55).5

The next question, of course, is, what unites these three root meanings in the verbs sein and "to be"—even if the infinitive form has become, as Heidegger so forcefully argues, drained of all but the most general meaning? Heidegger goes on to ask a chain of nine questions about the historical development of the verb "to be," asking, for example, why the three initial meanings were brought together, how they were blended, what "dominant meaning" emerged, and then how the verb lost its vigor and became the abstract, vapid infinitive of today (55-56). Heidegger does not answer these questions here, in part because he cannot without further linguistic research, but also because he wants to emphasize that linguistics can take thinking only so far; his goal has been to reawaken a sense of Being as a question (55, 57). The subsequent chapters of the Introduction to Metaphysics now trade on our growing appreciation for how radical this question is.

But we may still venture an answer as to what unifies the three root senses of the verb "to be." A fair guess would be that "living, arising, abiding" are united in the Heideggerian notion of "coming to presence" (anwesen) (46), which indeed he identifies as one of the senses of the Indo-European root wes (55). Being as coming to presence embraces the meaning of "to be" as "living" in the sense that presencing is not an inert present object, a timeless thing present-at-hand, but rather a process of dynamic unfolding. This unfolding, as coming to presence, also includes the sense of the arising, the appearing, the self-manifesting of Being as nature (φύσις). Coming to presence is also what abides. What abides is not the beings that temporarily endure in their stand and thereby reside as present if only for a little while before departing, but rather the temporal coming to presence of these beings. Intimately connected to such coming to presence is going into absence, the falling-away, the not-Being-there, the departure into impermanence and absence, and so we have returned to the guiding question about Being and Nothing with which Heidegger began the lecture course.

Before concluding this section, we should return to something we passed over. We saw that in Heidegger's account, the Greeks understood Being as a kind of taking-a-stand, a coming to presence that endures precisely not because it is general and unlimited (or, for that matter, eternal), but rather because it establishes a limit (πέρας) and an end (τέλος) for beings. According to this interpretation, Being is precisely not "vapor" but rather that which grants beings their specificity and distinctness. Heidegger's point about the infinitive as a name for Being is that, as a result of the development of grammar, this name has conditioned us to think of Being, in the form of the "to be" (das Sein), as that which is the most empty, the most indefinite, the most general (56).

But this "decline" of the infinitive has much more than academic significance for Heidegger, according to whom, as we have seen, failure to respond properly to the question of Being defines the historical decline of the West and, more broadly, the crisis of nihilism in the modern epoch.6 For Heidegger, citing Heraclitus' Fragment 53,7 Being must happen, must "take place," as a struggle, a πόλεμος, in which beings, in their coming to presence, are set forth into their limits (47). Heidegger declares: "Confrontation does not divide unity, much less destroy it. Confrontation builds unity; it is the gathering (λόγος). Πόλεμος and λόγος are the same" (47). When Being as the infinitive declines into mere generality, all distinctions of rank, difference, limit, and position become blurred. Confrontation and struggle are the λόγος, which is to say, λόγος, or language itself, forms a meaningful world for us to inhabit precisely because we are responding to this call to confront Being through our struggle to interpret the world in language, thought, and action. True ontological struggle must then be upheld by a triad of great "creators, by the poets, thinkers and statesmen" (47).

For Heidegger, the way we understand and inhabit our world is forged in language by poetry, questioned and unfolded by thinking, and preserved by statesmanship. This triad is creative, not because they produce Being and beings ex nihilo, but because their struggle with Being both reinvests the world with meaning and sustains it. "Where struggle ceases, beings indeed do not disappear, but world turns away" (47). The world "worlds," to use a Heideggerian idiom, only when the limits of beings in their coming to presence remain open to an interpretative confrontation in language, thought, and deed. But to the extent that the original motive force of Greek philosophy has been lost, and Being has been reduced to either the vapid infinitive or a name for a particular entity (an ultimate substance, a final essence, or a "Supreme Being"), then nihilism has set in. As a consequence, beings—both human beings and nature as a collection of inanimate entities and energies—"become objects, whether for observing... or for making, as the fabricated, the object of calculation" (47). The onset of nihilism casts the question of Being into oblivion by objectifying Being as a thing an object of knowledge as the mere accumulation of information. Such objective information about Being then promises an accumulation and deployment of power for the sake of dominion over nature, both human and otherwise. Heidegger's delusion in the 1930s was that a modern triad of poet, thinker, and statesman—Hölderlin, Heidegger, and Hitler—could withstand this nihilistic onslaught

A final point: as much as Heidegger valorizes Greek language and thinking, we must emphasize that he also holds the Greeks in part responsible for the decline into nihilism. Greek philosophers developed words based on forms of the verb εἶναι (to be), such as οὐσία and παρουσία, in which they experienced the question of the meaning of Being without fully carrying it through (46). Heidegger attempts to recapture this experience of Being by rendering these words as modes of coming to presence. But he also asserts that precisely such Greek terms readily lent themselves to an interpretation of Being as an eternally enduring essence or substance: coming to presence becomes objective presence-at-hand; the dimension of time is lost, and so is the sense that absence (the Nothing) belongs to Being in the temporal play of the coming-to-, enduring-in-, and departing-from-presence of beings. Heidegger discerns this loss in the Greek treatment of language as a being (41, 49), rather than as the realm of Being itself, its "house." Hence the Platonism of subsequent Western thought, which interprets Being as a being in the search for a reality that is everlasting and unchanging. For Heidegger, because the Greeks were unable to uphold the question of Being as a question, the philosophically originary experience of Being as the polemical domain of coming to presence lapsed into oblivion. The decline of the infinitive becomes a decline not only in grammar but also in language itself, as well as in thinking, and indeed in history, culture, and politics. It seems that only a revolution in thinking can bring the genuine question back to its stand.

3. Evaluation of Heidegger's grammar and etymology of "being"

From the perspectives of linguistics and the philosophy of language, there are any number of avenues we might take to evaluate Heidegger's interpretation of the grammar and etymology of the verb "to be," but space limits us severely. We may grant that Heidegger's broad points about the role of the Greek and Latin grammarians in codifying linguistic forms and his discussion of the etymology of the Indo-European roots of the verb "to be" are basically sound (allowing him some license in interpreting the roots). In this section, then, I concentrate on one philosophical problem concerning the verb "to be," and I take as a guide the work of Charles Kahn. Over the course of his scholarly career, Kahn has set the standard for a detailed investigation of the philosophical significance of the linguistic meaning of the verb "to be," producing numerous articles on the topic as well as his distinguished work The Verb 'Be' in Ancient Greek. Anyone with an interest in the linguistic foundation for ontology must confront Kahn.8 He has understood his own work on εἶναι and its various forms in ancient Greek as a necessary propaedeutic and corollary to the philosophical investigation of the very meaning of "Being."9

The question of whether there should be any doubt as to the validity (or perhaps more precisely, the universal validity) of philosophical inquiry into "Being" is addressed by Kahn as the problem of linguistic relativism.10 Kahn, of course, did not invent this term. Its roots go back as far as Herder, Hamann, and von Humboldt; linguistic relativism had its greatest impact in the twentieth century through the writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir. As Whorf puts it, "the linguistic relativity principle* [means] that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world."11 The doctrine of linguistic relativism is epitomized by the following quotation from the linguist Emile Benveniste: "It is what one can say which delimits and organizes what one can think" (PGL, 61). For the linguistic relativist, since there is no lingua mentis, no nonverbal language of pure thought, and no such thing as language "as such," then all thinking beyond raw emotion and the processing of sensory data, that is, everything that we might call reflection upon concepts and ideas, depends utterly on the specific language that one happens to speak. More to the point, the language that one happens to speak conditions what philosophical problems one is likely to think about: "Linguistic form is not only the condition for transmissibility, but first of all the condition for the realization of thought" (PGL, 56). Benveniste takes particular delight in demonstrating that Aristotle's famous ten categories "do not refer to attributes discovered in things, but to a classification arising from the language itself" (PGL, 58). For Benveniste, Aristotle's categories (substance, quantity, relation, and so on) do not describe the a priori categories of Being, but rather linguistic entities and linguistic categories for classifying objects whose basis is the specificity of the Greek language. Aristotle may have noticed that" 'Being' is spoken of in many ways" (Metaphysics Gamma 2): Being is addressed as accidental, in the categories, as truth, and as actuality. But for the linguistic relativist, these multiple senses of "Being" are a peculiarity of one language family, and Aristotle was misguided to believe that they can or should be philosophically reconciled "to something that is one and single by nature" (1003a33-34).

The linguistic relativity of Aristotle s categories, then, is meant to serve as an example for the larger proposition that the very question of Being itself is an accident of the Indo-European family of languages. The morphology of modern forms of "to be" includes, as we have seen, several roots: es, bheu, and wes. These are distinct root words, having separate original meanings. Heidegger interpreted these as "living, abiding, arising" (a more conventional reading takes es as "to be" in the sense of "to exist," "to be objectively real"). The linguistic relativist will argue that it is simply an accident that these three roots are brought together in this one word in Indo-European languages, and, furthermore, it is because of the perplexities caused by the conjunction of these roots that the philosophical problems arose in the first place; in Benveniste's words, "the linguistic structure of Greek predisposed the notion of 'being' to a philosophical vocation" (PGL, 63).

Linguists and philosophers of language have adduced two primary usages of forms of "to be" in Indo-European languages: Being as the copula ("The sky is blue"; or, the predicate Y may be affirmed of subject X) and Being in its existential use ("The sky is"; Xexists). As Benveniste points out (PGL, 61), the fact that Indo-European languages allow for the substantivization of the verb (such as τὸ εἶναι in Greek, das Sein in German, or "Being" in English) compounds the confusion, because such substantives induce one to think that there is a realm of "Being" as objective reality that could be analyzed as the basis for all possible predications as either true or false, and also as the touchstone for determining what truly exists, or is. In reference to the roots of the verb, the philosophical problem becomes: What is it that exists eternally, that dwells and abides without interruption, and of which everything that by nature truly exists can be predicated? We see this already in the didactic poem of Parmenides and in the nature-philosophy of the pre-Socratics. But as Benveniste points out, there are other language families in which the various functions of the verb "to be" are divided among totally different verbs and even linguistic forms that are not verbs (PGL, 62-63). His point is that in such languages, the question of how to combine the concepts of "existence" and "predication" does not even arise as a problem. It is only because Indo-European languages combine several concepts into one word, such as "Being," that we inherit a predisposition to discerning a problem in fully reconciling these senses to one another. The sinologist A. C. Graham has put it this way: "There is no concept of Being which languages are well or ill equipped to present; the functions of 'to be' [sc. as verb of predication in Indo-European] depend upon a grammatical rule for the formation of the sentence, and it would be merely a coincidence if one found anything resembling it in a language without this rule."12

The analytic school of philosophy has been similarly dismissive of a "general" problem of "Being." This position might be traced back to Kants refutation of the ontological proof of Gods existence, in which he famously argues that "'Being' is no real predicate" and that "the little word 'is'" in sentences such as "God is omnipotent" leads us into a confusion between existence and predication (Critique of Pure Reason, A598/B626). John Stuart Mill denounced "the frivolous speculations concerning the nature of Being . . . which have arisen from overlooking this double meaning of the word to be; from supposing that when it signifies to exist, and when it signifies to be some specified thing... it must still, at bottom, answer to the same idea; and that a meaning must be found for it which shall suit all these cases." The failure to detect this ambiguity as a mere accidental peculiarity of a family of languages has meant that "even the strongest understandings [such as Plato's and Aristotle's] find it difficult to believe that things which have a common name have not in some respect or other a common nature."13 The general criticism of "Being" and "metaphysics" in what historically has been dubbed the Anglo-American school of analytic philosophy is no longer just a version of linguistic relativism but rather a broad philosophical attitude held in the light of it. Charles Kahn has summed up succinctly the prevailing view of the analytic school: "Since Russell, most philosophers of logic have agreed that we must distinguish at least three and perhaps four senses of 'to be': (1) existence as expressed by the quantifiers, (2) predication, as in Fx, (3) identity, as in x = y, (4) class inclusion, symbolized as x ∈ y. Russell once described it as 'a disgrace to the human race* that it has chosen to employ the same word 'is' for two such entirely different ideas as predication and identity."14

To put this in Wittgensteinian terms, the whole problem of "Being," and so, to a large extent, the concerns of the first two and a half millennia of philosophy, are not just a matter of language going on holiday but of its going completely out to lunch.15 The problem of "Being" as a search for the "metaphysical" grounds for a reality that would, a priori, reconcile existence, predication, and truth to one another is simply a chimera induced by the ambiguity of the seductive "little word 'is.'" Giving philosophy a properly rigorous basis in logic and in the analysis of ordinary language depends above all on dispelling the illusions occasioned by this ambiguity, as does the foundation of a soberly empirical ontology, consistent with the methodologies of the sciences.16 For Rudolf Carnap, famously, Heidegger s "pseudostatements" about "Being" constitute the high-water mark of the meaningless metaphysical nonsense occasioned by the ambiguities of the word "to be."17

Kahn has nothing to do with defending Heidegger, of course; his aim is to correct and to refine the understanding of the role of "Being" in the history of philosophy. But his work for the sake of "Being" shares something with Heidegger, who was first moved to philosophy by Franz Brentano's 1862 dissertation, On the Manifold Meaning of Being in Aristotle.18 Kahn's great endeavor, in his study of "to be" (εἶναι) in Greek, has been to show that the question of Being is not a pseudoproblem generated by a mere linguistic accident. In this, he shares Heidegger's first intuition that in Aristotle's τὸ ὃν λέγεται πολλαχώς there resides a genuine question, perhaps the one most proper to thinking. A major thread of Kahns argument is that the existential and predicative uses of the verb are not the only significant ones for the dawn of Greek philosophy and so for the subsequent history of thought. To these two he adds the "veridical" use: ἔστι ταῦτα οὕτω ὥσπερ σὺ λέγεις: "Things are as you say." (In English, we see this veridical use in "That's the way it is!" or to use Kahns example, "Tell it like it is!"). This is the sense of "to be" as "to be true," "to be so," or "to be the case."19 Kahns thesis is that when the proper place of this third element is understood, the verb does have a certain unity, and the problem of Being then regains its dignity.

We may summarize Kahns argument for this unity of Being, beginning with the predicative use of "to be" in the copula. He notes two critical forms of the copula: the locative and the durative, as in "We are in this room," for the former, and "I am human" rather than "I am hungry," for the latter. The durative aspect marks the distinction between being something enduringly and becoming or between the stative and mutative, as Kahn puts it, a difference that Spanish denotes by separating "to be" into ser and estar, for example (soy americano versus estoy cansado). So far, we have three uses of the copula in its predicative form: the locative, the durative (which is equivalent to the stative), and the mutative. Next, the existential use should be clear: "There is a city called Paris." Here the "is" does not ascribe a state or quality (that is, a predicate) to an existing thing; rather, it underlines the very existence of the thing, that this thing is present in some sense and so may be the subject of predication. But it is the veridical use ("Tell it like it is!") that Kahn sees as unifying these other two (the predicative and the existential): "the concept of truth involves some kind of correlation or 'fit' between what is said or thought, on one side, and what is, or what is the case, or the way things are, on the other side."20 Being, as "what happens to be the case," that things are just so and not otherwise, is then a name, in a rough and ready way, for truth as reality. Without this third, veridical sense of Being we could not make statements that assert such a reality as the ground for claiming that certain facts are so (the existential use) and that we may correctly say things about these facts (the predicative use).

For Kahn, philosophy's primary impetus has always been to seek knowledge, to search out this veridical sense of Being as reality, and we can see that the existential use (X is) and the predicative (X is Y) depend on reality's being the way it is for the truthfulness of any statement. Kahn does not want to offend the antimetaphysical sensibilities of analytic philosophy: "I am using Reality' here not in any large metaphysical sense but simply as a convenient term in the hermeneutical metalanguage: as a mere name or counter for the facts that make true statements true and false statements false."21 As for the durative and locative aspects of the copula, this is where, he asserts, the first real work of philosophy began: in teasing out the implications of this unified set of concepts. Parmenides, for example, argues that "what is" not only endures for a while, it also can never change and become "what is not." For Parmenides, "what is" still is somewhere, and he ascribes to this place the form of a perfect sphere (fr. 8). Only with Plato does philosophy attempt to divorce Being as reality from location in place to the nonspace of the realm of the Idea.

For Kahn, the answer to "What is the question of being a question about?" is that, from Parmenides on, it "is a question as to what reality must be like—or what the world must be like—in order for knowledge and true (or false) discourse to be possible.22 By identifying reality, in the veridical use of "to be," as the key to Greek ontology, Kahn argues that he has answered the linguistic relativists:

The concept of being in Parmenides and Plato cannot be regarded as an illegitimate confusion of existence and predication, since it does not rely initially and fundamentally on either notion, nor on their special connection in the uses of the Indo-European verb to be. Instead, the concept of being must be understood by beginning with the notion of truth and its correlate, the notion of knowledge or inquiry and its object. But the connection between these three notions—truth, knowledge, and reality in the general sense entailed by the other two—is in no way a peculiar feature of Indo-European. The connections here are firmly grounded in the logical structure of the concepts of truth and knowledge, and similar connections must turn up in every language where human beings try to acquire information or try to test the reliability of what is told them. ... No language can do without these basic notions of truth, reality, and fact.23

In other words, Kahn is suggesting that, even if they do not exactly reproduce the various meanings of "to be" in a single correlate word, all languages must reproduce somehow the questions surrounding "truth, reality, and fact." For this reason, the philosophical problem to which the West gives the name "Being" can in principle be "translated," even if this single word cannot be translated with one exactly parallel word. Language in general, as a way of communicating about the world, must in principle (if not as a matter of universal practice) be able to raise the question of how we can speak truly about the underlying reality that allows us to posit the existence of certain things and their qualities; it is only a matter, then, of actualizing this possibility, latent in all language. Even our champion of relativism, Benveniste, bears Kahn out here, for he says, "every language, no matter what its structure, is capable of producing finite assertions" (about "reality" in Kahns terms)—and that nominal sentences, as the bearers of such assertions, present "a truth offered as such, outside time, persons, and circumstances" (PGL, 134, 143). To the extent that Kahn agrees with the linguistic relativists that the particular array of concepts brought together in Indo-European forms of "to be" is simply an accident, he also goes further to assert that this was a serendipitous accident for philosophy: "the language spontaneously brought together concepts which genuinely belong together."24

Here Kahn comes surprisingly close to Heidegger, who says that "along with the German language, Greek is (in regards to the possibilities of thinking) at once the most powerful and the most spiritual of languages" (43), although Heidegger would never say that the key to language is the ability to make assertions about reality. Kahn writes: "I would suggest that ancient Greek is one of the most adequate of all languages [to philosophy], and that the possession of such a language was in fact a necessary condition for the success of the Greeks in creating Western logic and philosophy."25 But Kahn has not much use for Heidegger, saying that the Greek concept of Being "also turns out to be very different from the questions of personal existence and the human condition which dominate that other school of modern ontology associated with the name of Heidegger,"26 as opposed, presumably, to the analytic school represented by Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, and so on. By falling prey to the common misinterpretation of Heidegger as an "existentialist" and a humanist, Kahn fails to realize just how much he has in common with Heidegger.27 Of course, Heidegger is interested in the human being as Dasein, but only to the extent that analysis of Dasein will give thinking access to Being itself. Kahn and Heidegger do agree that the question of Being is a valid question and not a pseudoproblem generated by the quirks of language. They agree that Greek has some particularly illuminating usages of εἶναι, such as the locative (the chora for Heidegger: 50-51) and the durative (in Heidegger s sense of coming to presence, which then hardens into the metaphysical notions of constant presence as idea, substance, and so on). They can also be said to agree that the question of Being turns on the problem of truth, but here they part company.

For Kahn, the problem of truth relates to reality as a totality of "the facts" about the world, a totality that forms the basis for all true statements. In his attack on linguistic relativism, Kahn shows himself to be a defender of commonsense notions of truth. For Heidegger, despite Kahns protestations to the contrary, this notion of truth as the reality that allows statements to correspond to the facts is a supremely metaphysical view, for it does indeed interpret Being as a being, in this case, the set of facts called "reality." Kahns Being loses the verbality and temporality of the "to be." More to the point, for Heidegger, truth is a temporal event of disclosure, not a correct correspondence (or even a coherence) of statements and facts. Understood ontologically, rather than metaphysically, truth is the eventuating that opens up a world of significance and meaning to human interpretation; truth is this opening itself, the primordial openness of our understanding in grasping beings as they are given to be and our own Being as what it was, is, and can be. Metaphysical truth as "reality" is derivative from this ontological truth as ἀλήθεια, or unconcealment.

4. Conclusion

Whereas Kahn may well be right in saying that the particular conjunction of meanings of the word εἶναι Greek led to the dawning questions of Greek philosophy, Heidegger is almost certainly wrong in saying that only German and Greek can "speak" philosophy because only in these two languages does the language itself intersect so forcefully with Being to engender the question of Being. This is Heidegger's linguistic relativism. As Kahn implies, all languages, each in their own way, ought in principle to be able to engender the fundamental questioning that Heidegger dubs the "question of Being," even if there is no proper equivalent in all languages for the verb "to be." The point is not to grind a politically correct ax for the cause of linguistic equality but rather to become open and to remain open to the inexhaustible richness that language encompasses as the domain of meaning, or the "house of Being," to use Heidegger's idiom.28 Linguistic relativism rejects the idea of a common matter for thought; openness to linguistic multiplicity, by contrast, should remain alive to the way in which each specific language may reveal new pathways, each with its own unexpected insights and vistas, into this matter for thought.

I indicated at the outset that it would be impossible to provide anything but the most preliminary commentary on the adequacy of Heidegger's own argument. If we are to take Heidegger seriously, then only a complete philosophical history of the development of grammar and philology since the Greeks, plus a philosophical study of the linguistics of the role of the verb "to be" not only in Greek (as Kahn has done), not only in German, and not only in English, but also in all language, must be undertaken first.29 This is, to say the least, the labor not of a book but of a lifetime. That all language in its multiplicity must be brought into the question is required by the Heideggerian presumption that "language is the house of Being." For Heidegger's questions to be taken seriously as anything more than the parochial products of certain Indo-European languages, it must be shown that the "matter for thought" that stands forth in his question of Being can be translated, as it were (and not by finding exact equivalents for Sein in other languages, for these equivalents do not exist), into a question that makes sense in and about all language. The question of language and the question of Being both turn on the problem of meaning. Briefly, language allows things to have meaning for us; that is clear enough. But how? The question of what it means to be is a question of how any being can be meaningful to us. We can take this as the question of how is it possible that we can know (epistemology), or how the brain processes input (neuropsychology), and so on. But all of these constructions of the problem rely on a particular answer to the question of Being itself, and so may be reduced to this question as a question that must be held open as such. Or at least, this is what is at issue in the complete justification of Heidegger's project on the scale that he advocates. And that scale is anything but modest. There is a vast realm to explore here, and at best we stand only at the threshold. The challenge that a philosophical linguistics must take up, if properly conducted, is one that could do much to bridge the lamentable gap between the "analytic" and the "Continental" schools of contemporary academic philosophy. For this endeavor to succeed, we scholars with sympathy for Heidegger's questions must learn to make these questions speak in our own languages, independent of Heideggerese. This too is no small task, and one hardly yet attempted.


1. "Letter on Humanism," in Martin Heidegger, Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 254, translation modified. The reader should consult the essays by Daniel Dahlstrom and Dieter Thomä in this anthology for further discussion of the place of language in Heideggers work.

2. For arguments sake we can take Heidegger at his word, but this assertion would require more rigorous examination in a fuller philosophical history of linguistics. For some recent treatments of the history of grammar, see Even Hovdhaugen, Foundations of Western Linguistics (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1982) and History of Linguistics. Volume II: Classical and Medieval Linguistics, ed. Giulio Lepschy (London and New York: Longman, 1994).

3. For a discussion of the difficulty of distinguishing noun and verb, see Emile Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1971), 131 ff. (hereafter cited as PGL).

4. We cannot examine in detail the fascinating resonances with Heidegger's question of Being in Sanskrit, but it suffices to indicate verse 17.23 of the Bhagavad-Gita: Om tat sat ("OM—that—it is"). The Sanskrit sat, for one thing, is based on the same Indo-European root es as the cognate forms ist, is, esti (German, English, Greek). See R. C. Zaehner, trans., The Bhagavad-Gita (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 379-383.

5. Sec the entries for bheu, es, and wes in Calvert Watkins, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985). The English form are is based on the root er, which Watkins gives as having the sense of "to move, to set in motion," which brings it close to the root meaning of bheu for Heidegger: to arise, to come to appearance, to unfold.

6. I am indebted here to Michael Zimmerman s discussion of "decline" in this anthology.

7. Roughly translated: "War is the father of all and the king of all, and on the one hand shows forth the gods and on the other humans, on the one hand makes the slaves, on the other, the free." For a discussion of this theme, see Gregory Fried, Heidegger's Polemos: From Being to Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

8. The reader might want to begin with Charles Kahn, "The Greek Verb To Be and the Concept of Being," Foundations of Language 2 (1966): 245-265, "Linguistic Relativism and the Greek Project of Ontology," in The Question of Being: East-West Perspectives, ed. Mervyn Sprung (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978), and "Retrospect on the Verb 'To Be' and the Concept of Being," in The Logic of Being: Historical Studies, ed. Simo Knuutila and Jaakko Hintikka (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing, 1986). There is also his book-length study The Verb 'To Be' in Ancient Greek, vol. 6 of The Verb 'Be' and Its Synonyms: Philosophical and Grammatical Studies, ed. John W. M. Verhaar (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing, 1973).

9. Kahn, "Retrospect," 1.

10. Kahn, "Linguistic Relativism."

11. Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality, ed. John B. Carroll (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1956), 221; see also 214. For a clear and succinct history of linguistic relativism, see Julia M. Penn, Linguistic Relativity Versus Innate Ideas: The Origins of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in German Thought (The Hague: Mouton, 1972). Penn focuses on the well-known distinction between two forms of linguistic relativism: the weak form asserts that language influences the domain of thought; the strong form asserts that language utterly determines this domain. As she demonstrates, linguistic relativists often shift ambiguously between the weak and the strong thesis. For our purposes, the strong thesis will be addressed, but we should bear in mind that even in its weaker version, linguistic relativism calls into question the "universality" of philosophical questions generated by reflection on forms of the verb "to be" in the Indo-European tradition. For a recent review of the issue of relativism and language, especially with regard to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language conditions thought, see Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, ed. John J. Gumperz and Stephen C. Levinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

12. Cited in Kahn, The Verb 'Be' in Ancient Greek, 2.

13. J. S. Mill, A System of Logic, bk. 1, chap. 4, sec. 1.

14. Kahn, The Verb 'Be' in Ancient Greek, 4.

15. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1968), 8.

16. See, e.g., W. V. O. Quine, "On What There Is," in From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980); "Existence and Quantification," in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969); Word and Object (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960), chap. 5.

17. Rudolf Carnap, "The Overcoming of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language," in Heidegger and Modern Philosophy, ed. Michael Murray (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).

18. See John Van Buren, The Young Heidegger: Rumor of the Hidden King (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 55-56.

19. Kahn, The Verb 'Be' in Ancient Greek, 331 f.

20. Kahn, "Linguistic Relativism," 35.

21. Ibid., 36.

22. Ibid., 40.

23. Ibid., 40-41.

24. Ibid., 41.

25. Kahn, "Greek Verb," 245.

26. Kahn, "Linguistic Relativism," 32.

27. For Heideggers rejection of the title "existentialist," see his "Letter on Humanism."

28. A particularly egregious oversight on Heideggers part is one we can understand perhaps because it allows him to exclude utterly the great texts of the Jews as equals to the Greeks in the "destiny" of the history of Being in the "West": he never once raises the question of the meaning of Being in the Hebrew Bible. How could Heidegger in good faith ignore the words of a God who names himself "I am that I am" (Ehyeh asher ehyeh, Exod. 3:14, also rendered, following Rashi, "I will be what I will be")? The complexities of interpreting this name as a play on forms of the Hebrew for to be, from the same root hayah as the divine name YHWH, are profound, and it comes as a shock that no serious Heideggerian attempt has been made, to my knowledge, to integrate this understanding of Being into the history of the West (and not only of the West).

29. For a brief overview of the history of linguistics, with bibliography, see R. H. Robins s appendix to Linguistics: The Cambridge Survey, vol. 1: Linguistic Theory: Foundations, ed. Frederick M. Newmeyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Gregory Fried - What's in a Word? Heidegger's Grammar and Etymology of “Being”
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