In Part II, Lecture III of What Is Thinking?, Martin Heidegger notes a possible philological connection between the words ‘think’ and ‘thank’ rooted in the Old-English word ‘thanc’, which refers to a grateful thought or the expression of such a thought. This connection drives him to ask, “Is thinking a giving of thanks? Or do thanks consist in thinking?”
His initial answer to these questions is that, “In giving thanks, the heart gives thought to what it has and what it is.” In this sense, then, “Original thanking is the thanks owed for being,” and this “thanks alone gives rise to thinking.” Here Heidegger is noting how the act of thanking, at least in its most original form of giving the thanks that owed to being, is essentially a giving of thought or a giving rise to thinking. It is the proper response of the heart to what it has and what it is, the proper response of the heart to being. In fact, he goes on to say that “Pure thanks is that we simply think – think what is really and solely given, what is there to be thought.” Proper thinking thus arises out of pure thanks, where “the heart in thought recalls where it belongs,” and so proper thinking has the posture of thanks. It is a giving of what the heart owes to being.
Heidegger describes this kind of thinking that arises out of thanks as devoted thinking, and he emphasizes that it is not “something that we ourselves produce” in order to repay the gift of being with a gift of our own. “Such thanks,” he says, “is not a recompense, but it remains an offering, and only by this offering do we allow that which properly gives food for thought to remain what it is in its essential nature.” The key here is that devoted thinking does not seek to establish an economy of giving through which it might repay its debt to being once and for all. Rather, it offers itself precisely as an offering, offers itself as thanks.
It is interesting to me that Heidegger identifies this posture of proper thinking in relation to the question of being, and that he does so, not in terms of nausea, as many others had done and were doing, but in terms of thanks. Though he had read Nietzsche more thoroughly than perhaps any one before or since, he does not follow Nietzsche with respect to the idea of nausea, as Sartre and the existentialists do. He is certainly willing to open the question of being, but he refuses to be driven by nausea into simply closing it again, into merely reversing its traditional terms. Instead, he insists on a posture of thankfulness that does not attempt to determine being in any direction, but only to think what being gives, to recall where it belongs, to allow it to remain what it is in its essential nature. Rather than closing or determining the question of being, therefore, proper thinking occupies this question in a posture of thanks.
This posture, this attitude, this stance, this thankful thinking, it is a powerful idea for me personally. I too try to occupy certain questions in their openness, the question of being not least among them, and I often find that I am doing so with a terror and an anxiety and a nausea, and though I have taken much from Jacques Derrida, his own posture of “a certain laughter and a certain dance” has always seemed too irreverent to me. The posture of thanks that Heidegger describes here, however, is the posture that best reflects my own experience when I am thinking properly, when I am thinking what there is to be thought as properly as I can. When I think in this way, I fall into this posture of thankfulness, a thankfulness that needs to give thought to what it has and what it is.