Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Use of Symbols in Heidegger, Rahner, and Weiss

   One of the many philosophical points raised in the writings of Paul Weiss (1901-2002) is the importance of symbols.  Symbols are prevalent throughout various cultures and religions; however, the understanding of such symbols varies depending upon one’s membership within a dedicated community.
   The importance of symbols has been made known in the writings of various philosophers and theologians including: Ernst Cassirer, Paul Tillich, Suzanne Langer, and Mircea Eliade.   It is my intention to compare and contrast Weiss’ teachings on symbols with the works of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Karl Rahner (1904-1984). 
    Before this comparison begins, it is necessary to explain the difference between signs and symbols.  Signs are “pointers”: they lack an objective referent and simply make the reality of something outside of itself known to those who encounter the sign.  For example, if one encounters a box over a doorway with the letters “E-X-I-T” in the box they are aware that it is through that particular doorway that they are able to leave the building.  Signs always indicate primarily ‘wherein’ one lives, where one’s concern dwells, what sort of involvement there is with something.1    Symbols allow one to become existentially engaged with what is being symbolized.  Symbols are involved with what they symbolize not because they organize them or control them, but because they are appearances, rooted in what they symbolize.  If appearances told nothing about what appears, there would be no symbols of either actualities or finalities.2
    Martin Heidegger does not speak of symbols in his writings, only signs.  However, these signs have a different meaning than the definition given earlier. Heidegger writes about signs in his 1927 classic text, Being and Time.  Our circumspective dealings in the environment require some equipment ready-to-hand which in its character as equipment takes over the “work” of letting something ready-to-hand become conspicuous. So when such equipments (signs) get produced, its conspicuousness must be kept in mind. Even when signs are thus conspicuous, one does not let them be present-at-hand at random; they get ‘set up’ in a definite way with a view towards easy accessibility.3
   More than one point is being made in this statement.  First of all, our engagement with signs (symbols) involves a circumspective concern.  A sign does not indicate.  It is rather a piece of equipment which, through its connection to other pieces of equipment, allows the ready-to-hand quality to announce itself.4 Therefore, for Heidegger a sign takes on the same characteristics as a symbol.  Secondly, the notion of circumspective concern involves a being’s (dasein) participation in a dedicated community.  More will be discussed about this later. Signs of the kind we have described let what is ready-to-hand be encountered; more precisely they let some contact of it ‘become’ accessible in such a way that our concernful dealings  take on an orientation and hold it secure.5
    Near the end of section seventeen of Being and Time Heidegger explains that there are three principle aspects of the relationship between sign and reference.  First the showings of the sign, like the reference of all other equipment is founded in the “in-order-to”.  Secondly, the signs showing thus belong to the whole of equipment only in virtue of signs does the equipment become “explicitly accessible for circumspection”.  Thirdly, only in virtue of signs does the environment “become accessible for “cirmcumspection.”6
     In his famous Tool Analysis, Martin Heidegger writes about the ready-to-hand quality of pieces of equipment.  Heidegger uses the example of a Greek temple to prove his point that this “sign” has a ready-to-hand quality:

                    A building, a Greek temple, portrays nothing.  It simply stands there
                    in the middle of the rock-cleft valley.  The building encloses the  figure
                    of the god, and in this concealment lets it stand out into the holy
                    precinct through the open portico.  By means of the temple, the god is
                    present in the temple.  This presence of the god is in itself the extension
                    and delimitation of the precinct as a holy precinct.  The temple and its
                    precinct; however, do not fade away into the indefinite.7    

   The ready-to-hand quality of equipment, in this case the Greek temple, can be seen in terms of the fact that the temple conceals itself while revealing the sign (the god present).
The temple, in its standing there, first gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves.  This view remains open as long as the work is a work, as long as the god has not fled from it.  It is the same with the sculpture of the god, votive offerings of the victor in the athletic games.  It is not a portrait whose purpose is to make it easier to realize how the god looks; rather, it is a work that lets the god be present and thus is the
    In his Theological Investigations, Karl Rahner refers to two levels of symbolization.
Rahner does not refer to “signs” when discussing his theology of symbols; however, his second level of symbols involves a vehicle of meaning which can only be understood in light of his primary symbol, namely the Realsymbol.  The realsymbol is defined as follows: Where there is such a self-realization in the other—as the necessary mode of the fulfillment of its own essence—we have a symbol of the being in question.9 Albert M. Liberatore defines a realsymbol as “the expression of a Being, in the Other, for that Being’s own self-enactment.”   If it is true we can understand the statement; the incarnate
Word is the absolute symbol of God in the world, filled as nothing else can be with what is symbolized.  He is not merely the presence of what—or rather, who—God wished to be, in free grace, to the world, in such a way that this divine attitude, once so expressed, can never be reversed, but is and remains final and unsurpassable.10
    The sign value of a symbol is what is first noted.  We then use the symbol to make the place where it is in fact encountered.  When, instead, we use the symbol in an act of penetrating to the depth of reality, the sign role falls more and more into the background until, when the symbolized object takes over, the role is no longer identifiable.  The symbolic act starts with a symbol, turned away from its carrier, and pulled into a positive, insistent reality.11 
    Robert J. McTeigue in his Redeeming Violence: The Cross as a Sacrament of Healing makes reference to the connection between Weiss and Rahner when he writes, “Weiss’ treatment of symbols is reminiscent of Rahner’s notion of Realsymbol. The symbol enjoys a reality apart from the symbolized.  At the same time, the symbol and the symbolized are so united that the symbolized is made really present by the symbol.”12

    Weiss’ definition of symbol, while reminiscent of Rahner’s Realsymbol can also be equated with Paul Tillich’s notion of symbol.  Paul Tillich speaks of the importance of symbols in terms of the fact that symbols are efficacious.  This efficaciousness, the innate power to do something, is essential for a symbol since it provides a permeable connection between the symbol and the symbolized. 
     A symbol is anything whose presence prompts a movement to the more intensive version of its dominant factor.  It is related to its object in ways not explicable by reference to laws of nature, causes, or even volitions.  Its object possesses and pulls on it and its user.  By affecting both the symbol and its user, the object makes it possible for the user to reach that object by means of that symbol.  Unlike a referent, an appearance can be a symbol of its object because it is intimately connected to it.13     
   The movement of the symbolic enterprise is bio-directional.  The symbols use the symbol as an invitation, drawing the reader of the symbol into that which is symbolized. The symbol presents the reader with an opportunity to participate in that which is symbolized.  Here we begin to pass towards the mystical.14 
    In order to properly understand the value of symbols, it is necessary to discuss their relationship to and/or use within a dedicated community.  Christian anthropology teaches that we are beings made in the image and likeness of God and we live in imitation of the Holy Trinity, a community of Persons.  Ancient Greek philosophers, such Plato and Aristotle, stated that humans a “political animals”, by nature.  God Himself expressed  His objection to people living their lives in isolation of others when He stated, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  There is no warrant for the view that there was ever a time when men lived alone for a while and then came together with others for mutual protection and help.  They could not do so without somehow already being in agreement, for without such agreement they could not communicate, make a ‘contract’, and keep it.  Men are societal beings as surely as they are individuals.15 
    Belonging to a dedicated community is essential in terms of understanding symbols since outside of such a community a symbol can actually become a sign.  For example, a Christian and a non-Christian both witness an infant baptism.  The non-Christian can understand and even appreciate the cleansing power of water; however, without a proper understanding of the transformative power of this action this symbol simply becomes a sign of physical cleansing.   The efficacious dimension of the symbol is experienced by the Christian since he or she is a member of the dedicated community while it is lost on the non-Christian.   
    Another expression of the importance of belonging to a dedicated community can be found in the example of a totem pole.  A totem pole is a piece of wood, carrying a symbol of a potent reality.  The symbol has clinging to it something of that reality.  What carries the symbol, the wood, also keeps the symbol from sinking into the depths of what it symbolizes.  When the grip of the wood that carries the symbol is loosened, the symbol is able to join up with its appropriate reality; to the degree it does this, is the degree the symbol becomes indistinguishable from the other contributions of the potent reality.   The movement is intensive, in depth.  We never penetrate all the way into the reality; there are
unprobed depths beyond any point arrived at.  What remains over is not absurd; there are, as we shall see, ways of knowing what is then beyond the reach of the symbol used. 16  
     The example of the totem pole shows the importance of belonging to a dedicated community.  While the symbolic value of the pole is not necessarily universal (understood by equally by everyone), members of a dedicated Native American community understand the totem pole in the way that it is described.  Since I am not Native American, the totem pole would present itself as a sign to me.
    Martin Heidegger speaks of developing community; however, the word community is never used by him because it has too much common-sense baggage.  Heidegger is attempting to give a new understanding to the concept of community and in doing so he must come up with a new word since the existing word already has too many levels of meaning attached to it.  For example, while traditional metaphysics uses the term being, Heidegger uses the term dasein to represent the same reality.
    Just as opening oneself up or closing oneself off is grounded in one’s have Being-with one-another as one kind of Being at the time, and indeed is nothing else but this, even the explicit disclosure of the Other in solicitude grows out of one’s primarily being with him in each case. 17
    The importance of developing community involves dasein’s circumspective concern for the world around him. The notion of circumspective concern is essential to existential Phenomenology, a philosophy based upon engagement with the world.  Not only is Being toward Others an autonomous, irreducible relationship of Being: this relationship, as Being-with, is one, which with dasein’s being already is.18   
    Heidegger refers to this “Being-with” as das Man (the “They”).  The ontologically relevant result of our analysis of Being-with is the insight that the ‘subject character’ of one’s own dasein and that of Others is to be defined existentially—that is--, in terms of certain ways in which one may be. 19 Dasein is not understood as ready-to-hand, as tools are.  Daseins encounter one another specifically through work.  The work produced refers not only to the ‘towards-which’ of its usability and the ‘whereof’ of which it consists; under the simple craft conditions it also has an assignment to the person who is to use it or wear it.20   For example, a cobbler produces shoes for others, whether for a particular customer or mass production.  Any work with which one concerns oneself is ready-to-hand not only in the domestic world of the workshop but also in the public world.  Along with the public world, the environing Nature [die Umweltnatur] is discovered and is accessible to everyone.  In roads, streets, bridges, buildings, our concern discovers Nature as having definite direction.21 It is on the roads and in buildings that daseins encounter one another. 
   The principle of das Man can be equated with the cave in Plato’s Cave Allegory discussed in The Republic.  This comparison is not necessarily a bad thing; however, because das Man helps us to function on a daily basis through routine.
    Heidegger states that dasein can leave the cave for a period of time; however, he or she must return.  Weiss speaks of one leaving the ‘Humanized World’ and moving toward the Invitor.  The Invitor could be equated with either Being or God depending upon whether it is being approached from the philosophical (Rational) side or the theological (Value) side.  McTeigue refers to the person who approaches the Invitor as the Aliquis (Any Man).  The Aliquis, like dasein, can leave the ‘Cave’ (the Humanized World for Weiss); however, they must return.  Symbols allow one to transcend the “Cave” and become existentially engaged with the Sacred.
   This being-in-the-world is not a secondary process by which dasein, as a closed subject, in some way comes in contact with the exterior world.  Rather, from the very start dasein is already outside of itself in the world and the things of the world.  Being in the world, according to Karl Rahner, therefore, consists in the a priori possibility of dasein to be related to the things of the world and the world itself.22
    Heidegger speaks of dasein as “running ahead to future possibilities”.  This is part of the in-order-to quality of tool use.  Dasein uses and produces tools in order to accomplish some work.  It is in that work that the dasein encounters others and moves ahead to future possibilities.  Rahner explains that this being-in-the-world has a triple aspect which is described by Heidegger as Verstehen, Geworfenheit, and Verfallenheit. The first term refers to Heidegger’s contention that dasein is not present to itself by stretching-ahead-of-self- toward-the-future.   This ‘tension-ahead-of self-toward-the-future’ is understanding, man’s way of comprehending and grasping himself, of grasping and restructuring his own power-to-be. 23 
   Rahner explains Geworfenheit as the “thrownness” of dasein into one condition or another. Dasein reflects upon his past, which had been imposed on him, and to one extent or another will affect his future possibilities.   The tension between dasein being ahead of itself toward the future and the past into which it has been placed impacts dasein’s engagement with things in the world and can enslave him.  This enslavement is referred to as Verfallenheit.24 
     Reflecting upon Rahner’s definition of a Realsymbol can give one some insight into his understanding of the importance of a dedicated community.  For example, in referring to Jesus as the Realsymbol of God the Father it is essential that one accept the fact that
Jesus is God.  It would be difficult, if not impossible, to explain Jesus’ divinity to an
Orthodox rabbi using Rahner’s Realsymbol definition since the rabbi is not part of the dedicated community and Judaism does not teach that God is triune. 
     The value of a symbol cannot be overstated.  As stated above, symbols allow one to become existentially engaged with a metaphysical ‘reality’.  The use of symbols, particularly in liturgical worship, can help to illustrate this point.  The Catholic Eucharistic liturgy involves the use of simple items such as bread and wine which becomes, through a process known as transubstantiation, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  This becoming is not simply a sign (pointer) which allows the faithful to recall an event which took place two thousand years ago prior to Jesus’ arrest and subsequent crucifixion; it is part of a kyrotic moment which has the power to transform the lives of the participants. A kyrotic moment is expressed as a “pregnant and unrepeatable moment.”  
    The succession of one moment after another is known as ‘chronos’ in terms of time. It is from this Greek word that the English word ‘chronology’ is derived.  Time and space is the earthly development, there is no time and space in Heaven so everything takes place there in the ‘enternal Now”.  This concept of the ‘eternal Now’ is what is expressed when
kyrotic time is discussed.  Jesus is not simply being reflected upon, even though some may initially encounter the symbol in that regard (as a pointer).   Those who belong to the dedicated community are existentially engaged with God during the liturgy.  The Eucharist is an expression of Jesus under the appearance of Bread and Wine for Jesus’ own-self enactment, to use one definition of Rahner’s Realsymbol.  A community is an aeon, a union of time and eternity, a ‘moving image’ in the sense that eternity is reinstated at every moment in a dynamic way.25 If Christian anthropology is correct and we live our lives in imitation of the Holy Trinity, a community of Persons, then the idea of the community itself being a symbol is quite valid. Using Heidegger’s understanding of community the coming together for work is the work, which enables the dasein to experience Being-with which is essential to dasein’s understanding of his circumspective concern for the world around him.  Measured against the Realsymbol, Weiss’ notion of community can be expressed as follows: The community is an expression of the Trinity in the dedicated community for God’s own self-enactment. Religious men form a dedicated community only so far as the unity they constitute has something divine in it and refers to a divine being beyond it. 26   
    The understanding of symbols and the importance of the dedicated community vary to a certain degree between these three men.  As an agnostic who is approaching the notion of symbol and community from a strictly philosophical basis, Martin Heidegger makes no reference to the theological dimension of either symbol or community in his Being and Time.  Rahner’s understanding of symbols and community are expressed in a theological context which can be reflected upon and examined philosophically.   
    In order do to a proper philosophical examination of the importance of the symbol it is necessary that one be able to come to such an understanding through natural reason. Is this possible?  Weiss’ understanding of symbol as an appearance which is rooted in what it symbolizes can be understood by all since no one exists in a vacuum and he or she
belongs to one community or another.  The same is true of Rahner’s notion of the
Realsymbol.  Heidegger’s teaching of symbol as something which is ready-to-hand and involves “work” that allows a dasein to encounter others in the world can also be known through natural reason since this is how humans (dasein) encounter one another.
   One aspect of Heidegger’s notion of community which is not directly (or indirectly) connected with Weiss’ is the importance of angst (anxiety).  Angst stems from dasein’s knowledge that even though he is always running ahead to future possibilities, those possibilities are not endless.  For example, it is not possible for a dasein born in the twenty century to become king of eighteenth century England.  Dasein is a “being-toward-death” and this limiting of possibilities effect how daseins encounter one another since they all share in the same reality.  There will come a day when our possibilities will
end because we will all die.
    It is not my intention to either state or imply that Weiss is a disciple of Heidegger as, for example, Plato was a disciple of Cratylus.  However, these two philosophers have come to similar conclusions about the importance of symbols and community.  A proper study of symbols provides an invaluable understanding of the way that people relate to one another and thereby function in community. 

                                                                 End Notes         

1)    Heidegger, Martin (trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson) Being and Time (SF: Harper and Row Publishers, 1962) p. 111
2)    Weiss, Paul Beyond All Appearances (IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974) p.92
3)    Heidegger, p. 111
4)    Heidegger, p. 110
5)    Heidegger, p. 110
6)    Carmen, Taylor “The Conspicuousness of Signs in Being and Time in Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology, Vol. 22, No. 3, October 1991, p. 165
7)    Heidegger, Martin (trans. Albert Hofstadter) “The Origin of the Work of Art” in
Poetry, Language, Thought (NY: Harper and Row, 1971) p. 41
8)     Hofstadter, p. 43
9)    Rahner, Karl (trans. Kevin Smyth) “The Theology of the Symbol” in Theological Investigations  Vol. 4 (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1966) p. 234
10) Rahner, p. 237
11) Weiss, p. 93
12) McTeigue, Robert Redeeming Violence: The Cross as a Sacrament of Healing (Master’s Thesis) Heythrop College, University of London, 1995, p. 17
13) Weiss, p. 89
14) McTeigue, p. 25
15) Weiss, Paul The God We Seek (IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964) p. 99
16) Weiss, Beyond All Appearances, p. 91
17) Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 161
18) Heidegger, p. 162
19) Heidegger, p. 161
20) Heidegger, p. 100
21) Heidegger, p. 100
22) Masson, Robert “Rahner and Heidegger: Being, Hearing, and God” in The Thomist Vol. 37 (Washington, DC: Thomist Press, 1973) p. 461
23) Masson, p. 461
24) Masson, p. 462
25) Weiss, The God We Seek, p. 106
26) Weiss, p. 101


Carmen, Taylor “The Conspicuousness of Signs in Being and Time in Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology, Vol. 22, No. 3, October 1991

Heidegger, Martin (trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson) Being and Time (SF: Harper and Row Publishers, 1962)

Heidegger, Martin (trans. Albert Hofstadter) “The Origin of the Work of Art” in
Poetry, Language, Thought (NY: Harper and Row, 1971)

Masson, Robert “Rahner and Heidegger: Being, Hearing, and God” in The Thomist Vol. 37 (Washington, DC: Thomist Press, 1973)

McTeigue, Robert Redeeming Violence: The Cross as a Sacrament of Healing (Master’s Thesis) Heythrop College, University of London, 1995

Rahner, Karl (trans. Kevin Smyth) “The Theology of the Symbol” in Theological Investigations Vol. 4 (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1966)

Weiss, Paul Beyond All Appearances (IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974)

Weiss, Paul The God We Seek (IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964)

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