In 1976, German magazine Der Spiegel asked Martin Heidegger whether he believed the Germans possessed a specific qualification for bringing about a reversal of modern technology, or as we say, a revolt against the modern world.
Heidegger feared that technology might, one day, become humanity’s master. Since by the early twentieth century, Germany had become the most technologically advanced nation, Germans should now also be made responsible for putting an end to the technological optimism. Heidegger thought it was a naïve frame to continue professing the idea technology will solve all of our problems someday.
It won’t. To prevent the destruction of the world, as though the whole planet were a giant gas station, we must reverse the technological trend. This reversal, then, can only be brought about by the very people that perfected the trend. By applying new thinking, and by drawing that thinking from the sources found in European tradition, we can give birth to a new, post-technological era.
In the interview, Heidegger added:
“I am thinking of the special inner relationship between the German language and the language and thinking of the Greeks. This has been confirmed to me, again and again, today by the French. When they begin to think, they speak German. They insist that they could not get through with their own language. … Because they see that they cannot get through today’s world with all their Rationality when it comes down to understanding it in the source of its Being.”
What Heidegger was suggesting here is that the German and Greek languages are much more rooted in their traditional past than are French or even Latin. French and Latin serve the scientific bureaucracy well but cannot grasp the essence of Being to which one must return in order to overcome technology.
Heidegger’s claim has often been dismissed, even ridiculed, by some who saw in Heidegger a chauvinist or a nationalist, a man proud of his language for it simply being German.
But upon closer inspection, we find that Heidegger was right. German language is a superior choice for the art of thinking, poetizing, and philosophizing. The rootedness of even modern German helps a German speaker understand his own language in ways that a speaker of English never can.
Take, for example, the word reality. An English speaker should be able to make out that the word reality refers to all the things that are real. But there, it stops. What things are considered ‘real’ things, then? What makes something real? The English speaker, with his knowledge of English language, must leave this question unanswered.
An English speaker is forced to first study Latin and French in order to find the answers to life’s questions. Etymology, or the study of the origin and development of words, learns that by the year 1550, the word reality was originally coined as a legal term that meant “fixed property”. In other words, real estate. English reality, then, is a sort of real estate which includes houses, bridges, roads, infrastructure, farmland, landscapes, and perhaps the earth and the stars, too, but always physical.
Only by the year 1647 did the word reality come to mean “real existence” but the older meaning of real estate still lies buried in this phrase. The greater risk, here, is that the English word for ‘reality’ now includes people, meaning: people as another form of real estate, or simply bodies in motion; man reduced to his material form, stripped bare of his soul.
In English, real existence strictly means physical existence. Souls and spirits are excluded from such ‘real' things. “We don’t believe in ghosts,” as they say. The spiritual dimensions of our universe are not considered part of the English idea of reality. English reality is a strictly objective one.
Germans, however, occupy a completely different reality. A German speaker would notice, for example, that the word for reality, which is Wirklichkeit, contains the stem (wirk-) of the verb wirken. Wirken can be translated into English as simply to work, as in: The engine is working. Though, in German, the verb ‘wirken’ has many more meanings.
Wirken can also mean to appear or to seem. It can mean to achieve some effect or to cause something to happen such as by casting a spell, as in: The solution works miracles. It can also mean for something to take effect, as in: The new law is effective immediately, i.e., the law is put to work.
If we take the verb wirken to mean to work in English, Wirk-lich-keit could then be translated more literally as meaning workingness. English reality is German workingness. Whereas reality in English is static and objective, German workingness, being at work, is something active yet subjective.
In perfect opposition to English objective reality, German Wirklichkeit refers to all the things that an English speaker would not consider real. Wirk-lich-keit entails forces, spirits, souls, the doing of deeds, of actions.
If, in English reality, the physical object that is a chair is considered real, in German Wirklichkeit, it is rather the imaginative spirits whose forces were applied to the untreated wood. The effect of that work is the workingness of the Germans.
In German, then, a physical object in itself does not exist at all! Physical objects are not part of German reality, but rather the results thereof, implying there must have been a force at work that created the objects. In German Wirklichkeit, as with Dutch werkelijkheid or Swedish verklighet, realities are the imprint creative actions have left behind in the form of works. (See: German idealism)
German reality is all the things that appear to have an effect on something else, not just by and of machines, but rather of life, of nature, of the universe, of souls and human beings, and specifically: of God. For what is really meant with Wirklichkeit is the effect God’s actions have on the world, or on people, who are being worked on by God. In this sense, today's German and Germanic peoples are still more religious than modern-day Englishmen.
But Englishmen didn’t always refer to their workingness as objective material reality. Their ancestors, the speakers of Old English or Anglo-Saxon, held a view of reality more similar to that of Germans. The Anglo peoples did not think of their world as a soulless physical object, as mere possession devoid of an inner working.
The Anglo-Saxon or Old-English word for reality used to be: áweosung. This word stems from the verb wesan, which can be translated as to be, or more precisely: wesan means to be present, or being-present. In fact, in modern German language, there is an expression ‘anwesend sein’, which means to be present. The German Wesen can also mean a being, such as ein menschliches Wesen, which means a human being.
The Anglo-Saxon word áweosung is a bit more precise meaning than merely being-present. It becomes clear when we ask the questions: Present what for? For whom? And for how long? The Anglo-Saxon would have instinctively understood that áweosung means being-present forever. We are facing an eternal and continuous being-present.
Imagine it this way: You are in a classroom and the lecturer asks about a Mr. Smith. Is Mr. Smith present? The lecturer looks around until Mr. Smith raises his hand and says, “Yes, Sir, I am present.” What does it really mean to be present in this context, this anwesend sein? It means you are not only there, but you also intend to stay there for the remainder of the lecture. And you are not merely there for no reason either—you are there to be in the presence of the lecturer from whom you wish to learn something.
This implies that, like the German anwesen or anwesend sein, the Anglo-Saxon áweosung implies an eternal being-present for some higher power. Anglo-Saxon reality, áweosung, meant all the things eternally being-present for God, in whose presence all exists. And this obviously excludes the physical reality altogether. Rather, the indestructible souls of men passing through the ages are the things eternally being-present for God.
In other words: We are here for a reason, and there is more to existence than mere physical reality.
Being-Present for God
So, we learn, that reality is not at all objective. Reality is subjective, and different peoples speaking different languages living in different times hold completely different views of what is or isn’t real. It means reality must first be defined—by people—and the very act of defining reality gives rise to a people’s worldview.
Modern-day Englishmen have come to see themselves as bodies in motion, whereas the ancient Anglo-Saxons saw themselves as eternal spirits there to live in the presence of God. Latin-speaking Romans, and later French-speaking Normans, really murdered the English soul by forcing the Anglo to adopt a strictly material sense of reality.
Germans, of course, beat the Roman Empire at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. This event saved their language from romanization, although today, German language is coming under threat from English and from diversity. It is no wonder, then, that modern English language, the language of the Anglo people who were subdued by the Romans, has become the language of the scientific community and of academia—branches of human life devoid of any spirit.
German Wirklichkeit, on the other hand, is all about the forces acting on and around us. One could say Wirklichkeit is the inner working of it all, the divine power that flows through us, and around, and beyond us, forces that take effect on us, on our thinking, and on our behaviors. Wirklichkeit is the sum of souls and spirits, of the subjective.
And to the Anglo-Saxon, whose conception of reality (áweosung) was arguably even more spiritual than that of German Wirklichkeit, their reality was about an eternally being-present, or a continuous being-present for something or someone, namely for God.
Heidegger Was Right
And so, I conclude, that Martin Heidegger was right. German language really is superior to English when it comes to philosophizing because, in the same breath, Modern English has become the superior language for doing scientific research (material science!). Philosophy and science each come from different and opposing realities.
If, someday, English speakers finally feel fed up with material society, perhaps they won’t have to learn to speak German to rediscover their long-lost souls, but rather, they can return to the language of their Anglo-Saxon forebears.
Language being an expression of how we think, if the English-speaking peoples were to take greater interest in the old vocabularies, and in so doing rekindle their people’s connection with God and subjective reality, they might beat the Germans at bringing about a revolt against the modern world.