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22. March, 2010 / Idun

Heidegger – The Thing

I have been reading “The Thing”.

“The Thing” by Martin Heidegger was originally delivered as a lecture to the Bayerischen Akademie der Schönen Kunste, shortly after the end of World War II. It was translated by Albert Hofstadter in “Poetry Language Thought” in 1971.

At first Heidegger discusses distances, how something being far or near does not necessarily depend on distance. Something remote might be near, while things near may be far away. The globalization enables us to travel vast distances. “Everything gets lumped together into uniform distancelessness”.

However, this talk about distances is not his main concern in his lecture. Heidegger goes on to ask the question about nearness. What is nearness? According to Heidegger it seems as if nearness can not be encountered directly. We reach nearness through what is near, namely things. This is where the real question of this lecture comes into focus; What is a thing?

Heidegger discusses this matter through the example of a handmade ceramic jug. What he want to know is what this thing is? What is a jug? The jug as we use it, as an object, is made of a specific material (ceramic material), and has a form and a function. But do these qualities define the jug as a thing? Heidegger argues that these are derived from a fundamental ‘thingness’, and that the jug’s ‘thingness’ is in fact the void inside it. The jug shapes the void, which in turn shapes the jug.

The jug as a vessel has a basic function; to hold. We become aware of that function when we fill the jug. It would appear that it is the bottom and sides that does the holding, the material that shapes the jug. Heidegger argues that this is actually not the case. If you fill the jug with water, do you then pour it into the bottom and walls, the material? What we are doing is to pour the water between the walls and over the bottom. It is the emptiness, the void, that is holding the water. “The empty space, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as a holding vessel”. What about the potter? If the holding is done by the void, then the potter is actually not making the jug. He shapes the clay. This shapes the void, which is where the vessel’s ‘thingness ‘ actually lies.

I found this read very interesting. I have never thought of it like this before. It’s like going backwards, turning all we know up-side down. We perceive the world through material, and forget about the negative spaces that lie in between. That the vessel is actually the void does in a way make sense to me. The function is that of the empty space,  so does that not mean that the vessel must be that space? This lecture/essay has simply just increased my interest in the vessel.



Leave a Comment
  1. Calvin / Feb 2 2011 2:26 pm

    I’m reading this essay now… it’s kind of out there, but cool. Hiedegger’s thingness reminds me of Taoism: it’s not the frame that makes a door but the space in-between.

  2. itherin / Feb 3 2011 9:30 am

    It is a bit out there, but very interesting. It just completely set my course on the MA, and after reading it I solely worked with vessels. I think what interested me was working with very very thin vessel walls, thus almost erasing the boundaries between what is the vessel, and what is the exterior.

  3. l s berger / Nov 27 2012 8:50 pm

    I have been reading Gendlin’s old but excellent analysis (added to the book) — does anyone know of any recent analyses that add substantially to what Gendlin says?

  4. Andrew / May 27 2013 11:06 am

    Thank you for summarising a completely frustrating and annoying essay to read. At times it was like watching Monty Python’s Spam.

    The problem is that all of the things you have said here I understood when i read it. But what the hell is he talking about when he’s talking about the sun and earth and sky?

    He also gives no other examples; what gives a piece of fruit its thingness, or an iPhone? What about objects that have no void, no outward donation, or no receiving and holding?

    Could you please explain?

    • Idun Sira / May 28 2013 8:43 am


      I would suggest reading:

      It is centered around ecology, but it has some good points and explanations that might help.

      I think you shouldn’t be too attached to what he says about the void, but how he talks about that the thingness is the basic function. The vessel’s function is to hold. What is the basic function of a phone? To communicate?

      How we would normally perceive the world is to have an object and then attach certain properties to it – function follows form (or I have this ceramic vessel, and it can hold water). Heidegger has it all turned on its head: it is the basic functionality that defines a thing, and the material is really a way for the thingness to exist, such as the walls of the vessel need to be there for the vessel to be able to hold, but it is still the holding that is the very basic functionality.

      This is just my little interpretation, with the viewpoint of a ceramicist. Unfortunately I am not all-knowing, and I haven’t read the essay itself since 2010, so I am sorry I can’t be of more help.

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