Heidegger and the Call

In exploring the question “What is Called Thinking?”, Heidegger differentiates between two senses of the verb ‘to call’.

He first notes the most common usage of ‘to call’, which “simply means to give this or that a name.”  In this sense, the title question of the book could be rephrased something like, “What is it that we name thinking” or “What thing do we label as thinking?” or as Heidegger puts it himself, “What idea shall we form about the process to which has been given the name thinking?”  The act of calling in this sense has to do with defining and labeling.  The agency in this calling is the thinker, and thinking is its object.

Heidegger then notes a less common usage of ‘to call’, one that he says is more originary and that bears the word’s “real signification.” In this originally habitual sense, he says, ‘to call’ means “to set in motion, to get something underway.”  Calling in this sense is “not so much a command as a letting-reach.”  It means to “instruct, demand, allow to reach, get on the way, convey, provide with a way,” and can best be  approximated with the verbs “invite, demand, instruct, direct.”  When the question “What is called thinking?” is reconsidered in this light, it might better be read as asking, “What is it that invites or instructs or directs us into thinking?” or in Heidegger’s own words “What is it that appeals to us to think?” or “What is it that enjoins our nature to think, and thus lets our nature reach thought?”  In this formulation of the question, the thinker becomes the object of the action, the one who is invited into thinking, and the action is less about defining what thinking is than in discovering how it is that the way into thinking is opened for us.

Heidegger goes on to argue that what calls us to think, what opens the way to thinking, is actually the call itself needing or wanting to be thought. “That which calls us to think in this way,” he says, “presumably can do so only insofar as the calling itself, on its own, needs thought.  What calls us to think, and thus commands, that is, brings our essential nature into the keeping of thought, needs thinking because what calls us wants itself to be thought about according to its nature.  What calls on us to think demands for itself that it be tended, cared for, husbanded in its own essential nature, by thought.”   Heidegger is here locating agency, not in the thinker, but in that very thing which calls us to think.  It is the desire of the call to be thought that in fact calls to us into thinking.  The call needs to be thought, wants to be thought, demands to be thought, and it is this that invites us to think.

All of this is quite interesting to me, not only because it relates closely to the questions that I was asking of Heidegger several chapters earlier, but also because the idea of calling has been very important to me over the years, first in an explicitly religious sense during my childhood, and then as a way to describe the function of writing in the world, and most recently as a figure for the gesture that draws us face to face with one other. The domain name for this site, vocamus, which derives from the Latin verb ‘to call’ and means ‘we call’ or ‘we invoke’, is a product of my interest in this idea, and it too can be used in both the senses that Heidegger identifies, as naming or designating, and also as calling, summoning, invoking, or inviting.

There is a third sense in which it is used, however, one that Heidegger never makes explicit but that I would suggest is everywhere implicit in his argument, that is, calling in the sense of bringing about or putting into a state or a condition.  The call to thinking, it seems to me, and I think this is consistent with what Heidegger is arguing, is less a call to a certain kind of activity than it is a call to a state, condition, or way of being.  To be called, invited, invoked, directed, or drawn into thinking is to be presented to thinking, not to act upon it, but to be in relation to it.  It is in this sense that I would read Heidegger’s claim that the call “does not just give us something to think about, nor only itself, but it first gives thought and thinking to us, it entrusts thought to us as our essential destiny, and thus first joins and appropriates us to thought.”

  1. John Jantunen said:


    (here we go again)

    I wrote the following as the opening two lines of a chapter in Cipher:

    “Progress has a will of its own. It needs us as as a flame needs a match.”

    I wonder if this has something to do with what Heidegger is saying about thought when he says “it first gives thought and thinking to us, it entrusts thought to us as our essential destiny, and thus first joins and appropriates us to thought.” (which also recalls what Dawkins said about ideas, what he termed memes, and I know how much you like him). Are we then, simply the vessel through which thought itself acts? What does this then say about free will, I wonder? We can refuse to heed the call (as so many of us do), what he terms the action, but how, once we’ve accepted its call (taken action), can we then channel thought in general, or our own thoughts specifically, towards something productive, instead of just letting it use us to allow all manner of ungodly manifestisations in the world separate from thought (ie. words); that is, in the real?

  2. Yes, his lecture on ‘the call’ in that book is one of the best moments of the latter portion. I especially like how he compares it to the cry.

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