Martin Heidegger on Separation and the Oblivion of Being

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"The world now appears as an object open to the attacks of calculative thought...Nature becomes a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry". - Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking

The following is a companion piece to the article we published today called Sacred Economics- A Short Film Debut, which is centered on the work of Charles Eisenstein. As you will see in the video there, as well as in Chris' reflections at the end, the notion of separation is central to the thought and message of separatedEisenstein's work. He argues that since agricultural times humanity has been on a path of separation, that is, a way of being-in-the-world where we increasingly experience ourselves as separate from each other and separate from the world around us. In a recent article he writes:

"Our “ascent” to supposed mastery of nature has run its course, generating a multitude of crises that are birthing a transition into a new age: an Age of Reunion. No longer seeing ourselves as separate, our relationship to nature is becoming one of co-creative partnership". 

This notion of separation was central to the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger too, and I was really reminded of Heidegger while listening to Eisenstein. In fact, I wanted to stay after our workshop and ask him if his thinking on this matter had been affected by Heidegger, but alas the line was too long and I had to drive heidegger2some folks home. I'd still be curious to find out. Nevertheless, let's delve a bit deeper into Heidegger's thinking on this topic. In his essay The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger tries to capture the essence of modern technology and the modern mind with the concept of enframing. Here's Heidegger:

"The essence of modern technology lies in Enframing...It is the way in which the real reveals itself as standing-reserve...Enframing is the gathering together that belongs to that setting-upon which sets upon man and puts him in position to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve...As a destining, it banishes man into that kind of revealing which is an ordering. Where this ordering holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing".

Heidegger is a notoriously difficult read, so what's he saying here in this typically strange language of his? Basically that the essence of modern technology and the modern mind is to view the world, the Earth and its resources, as just a bunch of stuff out there that's at our disposal to use however we wish. Over time this type of relation to the world becomes so dominant and normalized that other ways the world could reveal itself to us - as holy, as beautiful, as Other(s) to be treasured, as profoundly interdependent- get driven out by this pervasive mindset. Here's the philosopher Charles Guignon on Heidegger notion of enframing:

"The understanding of entities as whatever is at our disposal reinforces the self-certainty of the "greatness of the subject" in modern subjectivism. We experience reality as a "world-picture" set before us martin[enframing], and ourselves as subjects who can challenge and control whatever there is...When entities are treated as interchangeable bits cut off from any proper place or "region" to which they belong, they are "un-beings", devoid of the kind of connectedness to contexts of meaning that could let them become manifest in their being" (1).

Heidegger believes that this way of being-in-the-world has led to "the oblivion of Being" in the modern era. The oblivion of Being. What a provocative phrase, but what does it mean? It's difficult to say exactly, but I translate it this way. First, what is Being? I think of encountering Being in that moment where we recognize the sheer fact of existence, that there's something and not nothing. In that moment the world can suddenly appear enchanted, mysterious, luminous, strange, holy. The poet is particularly in tune with this immediacy of Being, as seen in the work of someone like William Carlos Williams. However, in this age, as we drill and frack and kill and overfish and mine and build and pollute, this realization of Being recedes farther and farther away from the consumptive spectacle of separation we are living in.

In closing, here's a gorgeous monologue on Heidegger and this topic by professor Robert Harrison, on his great radio-podcast Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature) (Episode 104)(monologue- 0:00-5:29). May this finally be the time where we move through and beyond this period of separation, and begin the journey home.


(1) Giugnon, Charles. The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. 'Introduction'. Cambridge University Press, 1993. p.20.

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  • Comment Link Catharine Saturday, 03 March 2012 21:36 posted by Catharine

    By sheer serendipity, this past week I've read neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's eye-opening and highly readable account of her own left-hemisphere stroke at age 37, "My Stroke of Insight".

    Her experience, including eight years of recovery, introduced her to the fundamental sensation -- the certainty -- of being separate from nothing and truly 'one' with all. Like Wm Carlos Williams et al., she found herself transformed by the awareness of Being, just as you delineate it:

    "I think of encountering Being in that moment where we recognize the sheer fact of existence, that there's something and not nothing. In that moment the world can suddenly appear enchanted, mysterious, luminous, strange, holy."

    I notice that much of contemporary self-improvement strategy, whatever its given form, seems to retrain everyday practitioners to make more generative and unifying use of the brain's right hemisphere's functions. These methods must help us to begin the journey home and may sustain us along the way -- even if they cannot make us angels!

  • Comment Link Paul Duke Saturday, 03 March 2012 23:57 posted by Paul Duke

    Love this Trevor. Having just gone through a Heidegger period, this fleshes out many things for me. Thanks.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Monday, 05 March 2012 23:00 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    thanks Catherine, and thanks for reminding me of Jill Bolte Taylor in regards to this piece. I watched and enjoyed her TED talk a while back, and bought my mom the book after she had a stroke, so I'll dip back into those resources given your suggestion.

    thanks Paul, great to hear. I had the good fortune of spending two full semesters at university pouring over Heidegger at a snail's pace with two different scholars (including my mentor Jan Zwicky) and it's nice to be able to translate some of what I learned for others, especially for such a difficult thinker. Heidegger, as I'm sure you also discovered, has so much to say and so much insight, it's a shame to have that accessible to so few. It's not necessarily the role of the technical philosopher to do that (Sartre once said he wrote Being and Nothingness with a group of about 200 colleagues in mind, which is fair enough), but secondary translation of key thinkers is an important job for someone, and I'm glad it sounds like I've had some modicum of success here. cheers.

  • Comment Link Joe Corbett Wednesday, 07 March 2012 09:18 posted by Joe Corbett

    trevor, this is the existential objectification of the world experienced by humanity more generally and modern humans more specifically. its the human condition, the fall, the separation that we must live with and seek to overcome the best we can as individuals and as a collectivity.

    but for an even more precise and historically grounded analysis and critique, habermas shows how this objectification manifests today in specific political and capitalist ruling-class forms through strategic-instrumental rationality, creating the calculating efficiency machine of profane capitalist political economy in all its alienation, exploitation, inequality, injustice, and imbalance within the social system as a whole. thus habermas provides us with a concrete social reality we can potentially change rather than merely a universal existential dilemma to lament and agonize over.

    for more on habermas and integral critical theory you can go here:

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 13 March 2012 22:27 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Joe, thanks, sorry for the late reply. Once again I'm in deep agreement with what you write here. I wrote an essay for this site a while back trying to tackle and unpack the issue of instrumental reason:

    I mostly follow Charles Taylor's work in the piece, but it does includes a passage from Habermas and more from Heidegger. Only the first two sections are relevant to instrumental reason.

    I think this point you make is very important:

    "thus habermas provides us with a concrete social reality we can potentially change rather than merely a universal existential dilemma to lament and agonize over".

    absolutely. that's why I've tried to give attention to the topic in the past, and here again in this piece, and will continue to do so until the mad dissociated nightmare is over. I appreciate your work on this topic too, and have read all your pieces at integralworld.

    love having your voice around here Joe, I'm finding it very empowering (not to mention elucidating). thanks!

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 13 March 2012 22:33 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    This passage by Father Richard Rohr was forwarded to me the other day by Br. Juma, and I thought it had some valuable overlap with this piece here:

    "Letting Go:

    The notion of a spirituality of subtraction comes from Meister Eckhart (c.1260-1327), the medieval Dominican mystic. He said the spiritual life has much more to do with subtraction than it does with addition. Yet I think most Christians today are involved in great part in a spirituality of addition.

    The capitalist worldview is the only one most of us have ever known. We see reality, experiences, events, other people, and things—in fact, everything—as objects for our personal consumption. Even religion, Scripture, sacraments, worship services, and meritorious deeds become ways to advance ourselves—not necessarily ways to love God or neighbor.

    The nature of the capitalist mind is that things (and often people!) are there for me. Finally, even God becomes an object for my consumption. Religion looks good on my résumé, and anything deemed “spiritual” is a check on my private worthiness list. Some call it spiritual consumerism. It is not the Gospel".

    Adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations , p. 114, day 123

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