Being & Literacy

It is sometimes forgotten that Heidegger had a sense of humor. In his Basic Concepts of Aristotelean Philosophy, he at one point renders “rational animal” as “a living thing that reads the newspaper.” He was trying to emphasize that we are “discursive” beings. “When the Greeks say that the human being is a living thing that speaks,” he explains, “they do not mean, in a physiological sense, that he utters definite sounds. Rather, the human being is a living thing that has its genuine being-there in conversation and in discourse.”* You are born into your mother tongue just as you are “thrown” into existence. You have a language, we might say, before you know it. By contrast, literacy is something you accomplish. You learn to read and write, you spell your way through it. You can persuade me that you didn’t have a choice — like me, you suffered compulsory education, suffered and learned (πάθει μάθοςas, as Aeschylus put it) — but you deserve some credit for your effort nonetheless. While a language, then, is a form of life, literacy is a way of being. It is this distinct way of being human, this particular species of suffering, that I teach.

*Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, Indiana University Press, 2009, p. 74.

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