It has been much discussed how Heidegger had a penchant from the beginning – and by beginning we mean in this context Being and Time of 1927 – for uncovering things, i.e., objects, from their stale and habitual relations. For instance, Heidegger would talk about the shoes on van Gogh’s painting in a 1935 essay thus:
This equipment [the shoes] belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself.
This essence of the shoes – their shoe-ness – is what makes the shoes into shoes.
Heidegger’s approach is quite different from what we are used to from the world of non-natural – i.e., computer – languages. If we want to define a property in a programming language we give it attributes, and the property is by definition the totality of these attributive entitites.
Not so with Heidegger. With him the shoe – the equipment – is given its thingness through it place in the world. It belongs somewhere, it is cared for by someone, it has the potentiality to rest somewhere.
The Wittgenstein scholar – and, perchance, utilitarian – is eager to object that, surely, the meaning of the shoe lies in its use. An unused shoe isn’t much of a shoe, if even a shoe at all, is it? If the equipment hasn’t been used there is a sense – this scholar would add – in which is hasn’t been brought to existence as equipment.
This is the key to understand the difference between the utilitarian approach and Heidegger’s way: Heidegger was not alone in observing how we in our dislocation from tradition and historicity have come to disconnect from the things we surround ourselves with. Are the things revolting against or to us? Are they escaping our grip, avoiding our attempts to capture them in our instrumental gaze?
Heidegger would have it this way: we cannot rely simply on our received wisdom so as to know things. As John van Buren points out in Reading Heidegger from the Start, already in his theological studies of the 1910s, Heidegger was critically aware of the necessity to go back “to the things themselves.” Here we are situated in an anticipation of what Heidegger would later refer to as the clearing: when the young Heidegger would open Martin Luther’s biblical references he ventured into a domain in which the wisdom of the Greeks could be repositioned in relation to the “factic life experiences” of the early Christians.
These experiences – grace, power, glory – and the way they gave force to Heidegger’s attempt to question dogma in theology and philosophy was what provided the basis and foundation for the path-clearing Being and Time.