Introduction [106–107]

But this essential insight must now pass through a decision on this question: does language stand under the higher and broader characterization of it as gesture and expression and sign, or is it precisely the reverse: are human gesture and expression and sign given only because human beings exist in language? And what then is language, if not expression and sign? Something ultimate? But not for itself, but rather in the essential context of human Dasein?

Do human beings speak only because they want to designate and offer information about something—a thing, a being—so that language is a tool for the designation and presentation of information? Or do human beings in general have something to give information about and to give a name to because and insofar as they speak, that is, are able to speak? Is language an imitation—albeit a richly developed one—of beings as a whole, or are these beings as a whole, as beings, made powerful and unfolded only in and through language?

Do human beings speak because they want to declare and communicate something, or do human beings speak because they are the entities who can keep silent? In the end, is the originary essence of language the ability to keep silent? And what does that mean? Is keeping silent merely something negative, not speaking, and simply the outward appearance of noiselessness and quiet? Or is keeping silent something positive and something deeper than all speaking, whereas speaking is not keeping silent and no longer keeping silent and not yet keeping silent?

Whoever has not experienced and asked these questions from the ground up lacks all the preliminaries for access to the essence of language. Such a person immediately falls victim to conventional and very correct opinions. Unless we work through the above questions, there can be no adequate knowledge from which a science might first grow.

The ability to keep silent is therefore the origin and ground of language.11 All speaking is a breach of keeping silent, a breach that does not have to be understood negatively.

e) The ability to keep silent as the origin and ground of language

In order to further clarify our conception of the essence of language we should now characterize the ability to keep silent. Here we come

11. {Cf. Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1953), §34, pp. 164–65.} [English translations: Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 208; and Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 154.]

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Being and Truth (GA 36/37) by Martin Heidegger