The concept of "earth" by Heidegger

History and the "oblivion of Being"


Alberto Carrillo Canán (Puebla/Mexico)




The term "earth" plays no immanent role in Heidegger's Being and Time (BT) at all (1); in fact Heidegger begins to use it only in the thirties becoming then a concept proper. The concept belongs thus in the time after the so-called "turning" (Kehre), and then it plays an obscure role. The aim of this paper is to contribute to clarify such role and to explore the links to the concepts in BT, mainly the transcendental and history. In fact, "earth" shows itself as a concept with the help of which Heidegger retakes the problem of "properness" (Eigentlichkeit) of BT in the version of "proper historicalness", and it has a momentous link to the famous idea that Heidegger calls the "oblivion of Being". At any rate, a detailed and full consideration of the concept of earth lies beyond the scope of this paper, so that I shall be concerned mainly with the writing Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes (UK).

Earth and related concepts

The writing UK is actually the main source concerning the concept of earth (2), and the term "earth" forms in it a couple with the term "world". But in the writings Das Ding (DD) and Bauen Wohnen Denken (BWD) the term "earth" appears in a more complex array which Heidegger calls the "fourfold" (Geviert). The "earth and the sky, the divines and the mortals" form the "fourfold" (VA 147, 172), and first the "unity of the fourfold" refers to the "world" (VA 175), for such unity "(...) is present [west] as the worlding of world [Welten von Welt]" (VA 175). In UK and in DD the term "world" plays the same role as in BT concerning the "utensil", thus, the role of the earth as couple of the world in UK seems to be more important than its role as mere member of the "fourfold" in DD and BWD. But I must be more precise. What is the role of the concept "earth" in the mentioned writings?

One can find at least two roles of the concept of "earth", one of them, so to speak, material, and other one formal. The formal role of the concept lies in being a transcendental constituent; in UK in the couple with the concept "world", and in DD and BWD even as member of the "fourfold". Both times this role depends upon the relationship to the concept of "world". On the other hand, the material role in UK seems to consist in being a paraphrase of that what in BT is the "heritage" (SZ 384). And certainly there is a link between the formal and the material role. Nevertheless, for reasons of space, I shall put the material role aside.

Earth and the transcendental

BT stands in the tradition of Kantian transcendentalism, so that the transcendental, that is the Being of entity (SZ 38, 208), is nothing but a collective name for that what is not derived from experience but is a presupposition of it. The concept of "world" in BT is such a transcendental. It allows, said in phenomenological terms, the presence of such entities as the "utensil" and "the other" are; it is in fact the main constituent in Being of such entities. For example: "The world is that, coming from which [aus der her (3)] the ready-to-hand is ready to hand." (SZ 83) There are other formulas for the transcendental constitution, for example: "Being is each time the Being of an entity" (SZ 9) or "Being can never be explained through entity but it is for each entity always already [je schon] the 'transcendental' (...)" (SZ 208). In general it can be said that, whatever transcendental character of whichever entity, the character in question "lies always already in" it. For example: "Care (...) lies (...) a priori 'before', that means, always already in each factical [that is empirical] 'conduct' and 'situation' of being there [Dasein]." (SZ 193, i.a. (4)) In this way one can reformulate Kant and say, for example, that time and space "can not be explained through entity" but they are "for each entity always already the transcendental". One can also say that time or space exist not alone, as they were things, but each time in the corresponding object whose experience they make possible.

One can thus say that for each entity each transcendental or, equivalently, each "character of [its] Being" (SZ 13) is or "lies" in the entity in question. This formula applies then to UK: "World and earth exist (...) only so: in the utensil." (Hw19) Furthermore, one finds a similar formula in BWD. Heidegger says: "The bridge is a thing and only this. Only? As such thing assembles the fourfold." (VA 148) Likewise, one finds in DD: "The thing things [Heidegger: assembles] the world [the unity of the fourfold]." (VA 173) The strange last two formulations means that each, the "fourfold" and the "world", is in the thing, again as transcendental constituents of it.

That the "world" likewise each other transcendental constituent lies "in" the constituted, is a mere application of the purely formal idea what a transcendental is. But the novelty of Heidegger's concept of "world" in BT, insofar as it makes up the main transcendental constituent, lies in the conception according to which the "world" determines the "meaning of Being" of the constituted entity. The quoted formula: "The world is that, coming from which [aus der her] the ready-to-hand is ready to hand", means not only that "world" is in the utensil (the ready-to-hand) as its constituent. It means also, and this is the import in Heidegger's concept of world, that "utility" ("readiness-to-hand") is the meaning of Being of the utensil, which is determined by the world. This main idea of BT is repeated in UK. Heidegger says: "By the opening up of a world, all things gains their abidance and urgency, their remoteness and nearness, their scope and limits." (Hw 30) The "world" determines whether a thing is urgent, or it can wait, whether it is remote or near, etc. That is, the meaning of Being for each thing is determined by the "world". Especially important for us: according to UK not only the world but also the earth exist "only so: in the utensil". Thus, "earth" shows itself as a transcendental. But what is the role of the new concept "earth"?

Earth and world

In UK Heidegger characterizes the "earth" in a variety of ways, but there is an outstanding relationship between it and the "work". Heidegger refers to a "Greek temple" and in this context says: "Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm itself manifest (...)." (Hw 27) Notice the traditional phenomenological conception concerning the transcendental constitution: something appears itself, here "the storm itself"; notice, further, appearing as result of a "making manifest", that is, of "presenting" something, and certainly "itself". Heidegger continues below: "The temple's firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air." (Hw 27) Again the phenomenological model of presenting something, this time, "making" it "visible". And now a clearly culmination of this thought model. By virtue of the temple "[t]ree and grass, eagle and bull, snake and cricket first enter into their distinctive shapes and thus come to appear as that as what they are." (Hw 31) Heidegger has certainly spoken of the temple, but he adds: "The Greeks early called this emerging and rising (...) U Ê r i | . It illuminates [makes visible] at once that on which and in which man bases his dwelling. We call it earth." (Hw 32n.) The status of earth as a transcendental constituent is thus apparent. But the question remains. What is the difference to world?

In this context Heidegger meaningful equates "earth" with "stone", "color" (Hw 32), and furthermore with "wood", "metal", "sound" and "word" (Hw 31), in general to "work-material" (Hw 31). This equation occurs on the occasion of examining the difference between utensil and "work" (of art), this time not only the "temple-work". By producing [Herstellen] the utensil, materials are "used and used up" (Hw 31); on the contrary, by producing the work such things becomes properly that what they are. For example: "Certainly, the sculptor uses stone just as the mason uses it, in his one way. But he does not use it up. (...) Certainly, the poet also uses the word, but not in the way in which ordinary speakers and writers must use up words, but rather so, that the word only now becomes (...) truly a word." (Hw 33) By using the materials to produce the work they become what they are. Applying Heidegger's equation of earth with stone, color, word, etc., the following sentence results then valid: "The work lets the earth be an earth." (Hw 32, i. a.) That is, the work does not use the earth up. What does this means in the sense of the transcendental constitution?

Relative to BT it means a special moment in such constitution. This is the reason for which Heidegger needs not only the "world" but the "earth" too. The "world" performs in UK the same constitutive function as in the "analyze of utensil" in BT. That is, to present something as "this" thing "which it is" (SZ 68), but this in a wholly automatic way. In working with the hammer the worker understands it in its utility or readiness-to-hand, but even without to pay any explicitly attention to it. The same occurs with each of the "references" (SZ 69) to material, product, other instruments etc. implied in hammering with the hammer. The hammer, so to speak, disappears in its utility, and the utility itself disappears in using the utensil, whereas " (...) the use itself (...) becomes customary." (Hw 19) For this reason in §16 of BT Heidegger analyzes the "disturbance[s]" (SZ 74) in working. They play a utterly special role, namely to present not the util in its utility, but rather the utility itself, although in its "tak[ing] farewell" (SZ 74). Further, the "disturbance of reference" lets the "world", that is the "whole of references" appear (SZ 75). These quite peculiar presentational achievements are, of course, also automatic, that is, they occurs "non thematically", too (SZ 74).

To the described manifold concealment concerning utility, utensil, using itself, and the world, insofar as the utensil becomes customary, in UK Heidegger explicitly adds still another concealing, namely of utensil itself in the sense that it exists. Referring to the utensil and to the work, Heidegger applies to each the famous formula, "that" it, each of them, "is at all rather than is not" (Hw 51). The Being in the sense of "that it is" (Hw 52) disappears. In fact, Heidegger says: "Certainly (...) to each utensil (...) in using belongs, 'that' it is (...). But this 'that it is' in utensil does not come out, it disappears in the utility." (Hw 52) Heidegger makes still a step and moves from the utensil to the mere present thing: "In general we can notice by each present thing [Vorhandenes], that it is; but this becomes only noticed to result straightway forgotten." (Hw 52) Heidegger adds: "What is more customary than this: that the entity is? On the contrary, by the work this: that it as such is, is the unusual." (Hw 52)

We are thus, according to Heidegger, faced with something like a wholly concealing of Being, which Heidegger calls "oblivion of Being" [Seinsvergessenheit]. The utensil in its Being, that is: in that, that it is and its utility, as well as the working with the utensil, and in the end the "world", all together, become customary or "used up", and this means, "straightway forgotten". The concept of "earth" in UK seems then to be destined to be the antidote, that is, to play the role of something like a general "disturbance" of BT by taking up the function to let see, that is, to present, inter alia, the "world". But again, I must be more precise.

In UK Heidegger calls the described multiple concealing of utility, of utensil, and of using itself insofar as it becomes customary, the "using up". In accustomed working the mason, as we have seen above, uses up the stone and in general, in customary working "[t]he single utensil is (...) used up, but therewith, at the same time, the use itself (...) wears away and becomes customary." (Hw 19) But we have seen above that Heidegger equates the "earth" to the work-materials. Thus, the utensil in its use implies the "using up" of "earth" (and in the end of "world", too). On the contrary, as we have seen above, "the work lets the earth be an earth".

Earth and work

Heidegger says that the work produces [stellt her] the earth, but this, of course in the transcendental sense of letting something appear. He says: "This producing must be thought here in the strict sense of the word. The work puts the earth itself into the open of a world and holds it there." (Hw 32) Obviously production is meant here in strict transcendental and thus, for Heidegger, original sense of making something apparent or visible, of letting it be present; in this case, the earth. But by this, the work and not the earth seems to play the role of a "disturbance" according to BT. Nevertheless this is not a self-contradiction at all. For in the §16 of BT the disturbance is what plays the mentioned, very special presentational role, whereas directly in the §17 the "sign" assumes the similar role consisting in presenting the world. This means, in UK the work assumes, at least to some extent, the role the "sign" has in BT. At any rate I must examine the relationship between "work" and "earth". Heidegger calls this relationship the "setting back of itself" of the work into the earth.

Immediately after the last quoted Heidegger asks: "But why must this producing of the earth happen in such a way that the work sets itself back into it?" (Hw 32). Before Heidegger said: "That into which the work sets itself back and which it causes to come forth in this setting back of itself we called earth." (Hw 31) Obviously we are confronted with an interrelation. Not only the work makes the earth to appear, but the earth on its part should in some sense function as a "disturbance", which makes the work to appear too. Heidegger explains the mentioned "setting back of itself" of the work into the earth exactly by saying: "To produce the earth means to bring it into the open as the self-secluding." (Hw 33), furthermore: "(...) earth is essentially self-secluding." (Hw 33) But Heidegger explains this "self-secluding" of earth through nothing but only the idea that producing the work is not to use up the materials at all, and thus, in the end, that the "work lets the earth be an earth" (Hw 32-3). One finds, thus, that the "setting back of itself" means the very special feature of the work which makes itself as well as their relationship to its materials and to all the things in its environment something unusual(5). Thus, one can ask, why does Heidegger need the "earth" in spite of recurring only to the work? But the analog can be asked concerning the "world". For according to Heidegger the "(...) temple, in its standing there, first gives to things their look (...)" (Hw 28), and thus it seems to perform the same function as the world. I attempt to answer to the question why Heidegger needs not only the work, but besides it the "earth" and the "world".

Obviously, Heidegger wants to maintain the world in the role of the main transcendental constituent, as in BT. So, we have seen above, "all things gains their abidance and urgency, their remoteness and nearness, their scope and limits" first and only from the world. Now, if the world continues having the mentioned role, then it becomes easy to explain why Heidegger introduces the concept of "earth". The "earth" is that special constituent in the work which, so to speak, adds itself to the "world" in order to complement the presentational achievement of the world by avoiding that the presented things become customary. The world presents the things, and the earth, as transcendental constituent in the work, performs the utterly peculiar function of presenting their Being. The (production of the) earth means, so to speak, an enhancement of the presentational achievement of the world. Heidegger formulates this as follows: "The world grounds itself on the earth, and earth juts through world." (Hw 34) If the transcendental concept of world is necessary, then the concept of "earth" can be introduced to gain the enhancing modification of the presentational achievement of the world. But the question now remains Why does Heidegger need the concept of "world" beside the concept of "work"?

Earth and history

There are many indicia which show that in UK Heidegger wishes to couple the concept of "world" with the concept of "history", and to be sure, in the sense of "proper historicalness" of BT (SZ 385, i.a.) Actually, Heidegger says: "Wherever the essential decisions of our history are made (...) there the world worlds." (Hw 30) Of course, Heidegger uses the term "world" to mean the transcendental constituent which he also calls "openness": "The world is the (...) openness of the broad paths of the simple and essential decisions in the destiny of a historical people." (Hw 34) But at any rate this refers to the "earth", for Heidegger says, for example: "Upon the earth and in it, historical man grounds his dwelling in the world." (Hw 31n.)

The point is here to understand the term "earth" not only in a material sense, but also specially in the discussed transcendental one. First and only by virtue of the work, that is to say, through the transcendental achievement of the "earth", all things and men become not only apparent, but they do not sink to the customary. The "unusual" that each entity is (Hw 52), and what and how it is (6), becomes unconcealed. In other words, Being does not sink into "oblivion". But this necessarily supposes that the work "(...) moves us into this openness and so at once takes us out from the customary." (Hw 52) Noticeable here is the combination of two transcendental achievements. On the one hand the "openness" of "world", openness which presents the entities, on the other hand a very special aspect of the discussed presentational enhancement: the things remains in the "unusual" (of their Being), and not the things only, but above all we ourselves. In fact: "In the proximity of the work we are suddenly somewhere else than we customarily used to be." (Hw 20) But this wholly breaking of the customary is nothing but the changeover from the "everydayness" to the "proper historicalness" in BT - and at once the changeover from the oblivion of Being to the proper awareness about it.

The transcendental achievement of "earth" is, thus, saying it simply, "unusualness", and through this transcendental enhancement due to "earth", the "openness" of the "world" reaches the quality of "historicalness". The "historicalness" in something is the transcendental that implies two layers in its transcendental constitution: world-openness "modified" (7) by earth-unusualness. Heidegger says in fact: "The world (...) cannot soar away from the earth if, as the governing breadth and path of all essential destiny, it is to ground on a resolute foundation." (Hw 35) Obviously, "essential" or fateful "decisions" which make up "destiny" and, in this way, qualify a people as "historical", cannot be taken outside of the "unusual". Under such conditions (8), thus, the "world" considered as "openness", that is, as the main transcendental constituent, must be modified or qualified by the "unusualness" due to the "earth". So, Heidegger refers to the qualified "world" by saying: "But the world is not simply the open that corresponds to the light (...). Rather, the world is the clearing of the paths of the essential guiding directions, to which all decision obeys. Every decision, however, bases itself on something not mastered (...); otherwise they were no decisions. Earth is the self-secluding (...)" (Hw 41) The "not mastered" is here nothing but the "unusualness", for if it were mastered, then it were no more unusual. Moreover, the "not mastered" lies in a series with the "self-secluding" of "earth"; so, the "not mastered" amounts to the "unusualness" associated to the "earth" in its opposition to be "used up" inasmuch as it is "the self-secluding" (Cf. Hw 32n). Thus, Heidegger can refer to the effect of "earth": "By earth (...) finds the openness (...) its hardest opposition and through it (...) its enduring basis (...)" (Hw 55). "Earth" means basing "openness" in "unusualness". This characterizes the history making decisions.


In this, "historical", context becomes thus understandable Heidegger's broadening of the concept of "work" to embrace "the action of state-grounding" as well as the "essential sacrifice" (Hw 48), and in the end, to declare that the "preservation of the work (...) grounds the being-for and the being-with as historical (...)" (Hw 54).

In sum, the concept of "earth" in UK shows itself as Heidegger's effort to reformulate the problem of proper historicalness in BT, and certainly in such a way that proper history reveals itself as the corrective of the "oblivion of Being". The next aspect in this problematic, namely the relationship between earth and truth is far more complicated and it must remain reserved for another occasion.

Appendix. Remark on the work of art

At any rate it seems necessary to point out here that in spite of the title Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, Heidegger's issue in this writing is by no means the work of art as such. His issue is rather the discussed modification of "openness" through unusualness which should be characteristic of "proper historicalness". This modification is the answer to the question "What works in work?" (Hw 20), question with the help of which Heidegger properly introduces his conception about the work of art. This explains the strange fact that Heidegger puts the work of art in proper sense together in a series with "state-grounding", with "essential sacrifice", with the events or decisions rendering "victory and defeat, blessing and curse, mastery and slavery. (Hw 49) This renders a concept of work in which the work of art is mere subsumed. In all this "works" "works" the same, that is, the modification of "openness" through unusualness. But through such a generalization the specific of work of art simply disappears (9).

In considering the structure of extraordinary temporality Heidegger could certainly use the work of art as an example of the unusualness inherent to such temporality. Instead of that, as already said, Heidegger broadens the concept of work to embrace extraordinary events, which make history. But this means that the genuine aesthetic problematic of unusualness as aesthetic dimension drops by Heidegger to mere instrument for his conception of "historicalness". It is therefore difficult to avoid the impression of a Heideggerian misuse of the concept of art. On its part the art criticism has paid almost no attention to Heidegger's writing Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes. For good reasons, since Heidegger does not deal in it with the work of art as such.



SZ = Heidegger, M., Sein und Zeit (1927), Tübingen 198616.

B26 = Heidegger, M., Gesamtausgabe, vol. 26 (1928), Frankfurt/M 1978.

Hw = Heidegger, M., Holzwege (1950), Frankfurt/M 19806.

UK = Heidegger, M., Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes (1935), in: Hw

VA = Heidegger, M., Vorträge und Aufsätze (1954), Pfullingen 19855.

DD = Heidegger, M., Das Ding (1950), in: VA.

BWD = Heidegger, M., Bauen, Wohnen und Denken (1951), in: VA.

GW3 = Gadamer, H.-G., Gesammelte Werke, vol. 3, Tübingen 1987.

N1 = Nietzsche, F., Sämtliche Werke, vol. 1, München 1980.

i.a. = Italics from author.



(1) It be used 4 times on the page 198, 3 of them in translating Hyginusīs fable concerning the cura and one in Heidegger's interpretation of it.Ý

(2) The sources are on the one hand Heidegger's writings interpreting Hölderlin and Rilke and, on the other hand other writings non referring to Hölderlin, in the first place the writing Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes (1935) and in second place the writings Das Ding (1950), and Bauen Wohnen Denken (1951). Concerning my goal the last writings are more important than Heidegger's interpretations of Hölderlin, for in them the technicalities in using the concepts are clearer than in the mentioned interpretations. Nevertheless it is convenient to keep these interpretations in mind, for at least Gadamer witnesses that Heidegger has taken the term "earth" form Hölderlin. Cf. Gadamer, Martin Heidegger 75 Jahre, and Die Wahrheit des Kunstwerkes, in GW3 191n. and 252. For the abbreviations and the bibliography see the end of this paper. Ý

(3) Square brackets inside a quotation are always from mine.Ý

(4) The abbreviation i.a. means: Italics from author. The underlining is mine.Ý

(5) Of course, this effect reaches the presence of oneself: "The temple, in its standing there, first gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves." (Hw 28) Ý

(6) This is a favourite formula Heidegger's I cannot discuss here. Ý

(7) In this case one is confronted with the "modification of Being" to historical Being. Cf. BT 9, 333, 371n. and B26 191. Heidegger is concerned in several places with the "regional modifications" of Being. For example, only in BT on 9, 11, 160, 232, 241, 333, 360, 366, 372. Ý

(8) Which in late writings becomes the "event" (Ereignis). Ý

(9) Concerning Heideggerīs assimilation of the work of art to other, very special forms of "works" such as "state founding", "sacrifice", one can remember Nietzschesīs Geburt der Tragödie. At certain point Nietzches asserts the specifity of the aesthetic and of the corresponding spectator role in appreciating it. If in experiencing a work of art prevails such a "worldly" (weltlich) and "earthly" (erdhaft) engagement in cult and action, in history, as Heidegger wishes it, then there is nothing specifically aesthetic more. Nitzsche would say: spectators become like the chorus in tragedy. There were the "chorus (...) ohne stage", this being a pure nonse. Nietszches asks: "what kind of art genre would be that without the concept of spectator?" (N1 53n.).Ý


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