Heidegger on ‘What is a thing?’

Himangsu asked:

What is a “thing”? Can we call a conscious being a “thing”?

Answer by Georgios Tsagdis

In his 1950 essay ‘The Thing’, Heidegger examines a maximal and a minimal definition of what a thing is – both turn out to be unsatisfactory.

In the maximal definition, one starts by selecting entities that may be termed ‘things’ and realises that in the broadest sense, everything is a candidate: a colour, a state, an idea, a project, a tradition, etc. Even God doesn’t escape the orbit of the maximal definition and Heidegger has it on good authority: Meister Eckhart, for example, refers to God as a ‘great thing’ (‘groz dinc‘).

On the other hand, the minimal definition shows that hardly anything is a mere thing. A little child might be called a ‘poor thing’ for example, but one soon defends the humanity of the child against reification. The animal fares no differently. Even a stone, the favourite thing of philosophy, soon appears not to be a mere thing (after all, from Plotinus to Latour, rocks grow, store and exchange information, set processes into motion, etc.). Accordingly, to call anything a ‘thing’ is both too much and too little.

Heidegger begins thus on a ‘second sail’, attempting to define not the extension of the term, but its ‘intension’. That is, he embarks on an examination of the meaning of ‘thingness’, rather than an account of the members that might be included under its scope. Understanding what constitutes a thing, or what a thing constitutes, demands much more than a few lines. It is conducive however to keep reflecting on the differential of the ‘thing’, both to the ‘object’ and the ‘body’: each term opens a multiplicity of philosophical histories.

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