The Gods of the Forest

4,642 words

This is what I believe:

That I am I.

That my soul is a dark forest.

That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.

That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.

That I must have the courage to let them come and go.

— D. H. Lawrence [1] [1]

The “clearing” (Lichtung) is one of Heidegger’s most vivid but elusive ideas. The Lichtung appears throughout Heidegger’s career, from his first book, Being and Time (1927) to his late lectures and seminars, especially “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” (1963–64).

This is the first appearance of the clearing in Being and Time:

When we talk in an ontically figurative way about the lumen naturale in human being, we mean nothing other than the existential-ontological structure of this being, the fact that it is in such a way as to be its there [Da]. To say that it is “illuminated” [erleuchtet] means that it is cleared [gelichtet] in itself as being-in-the-world, not by another being, but in such a way that it is itself the clearing [Lichtung]. Only for a being thus cleared [gelichteten] existentially do present-at-hand-beings [Vorhandenes] become accessible in the light or concealed in the darkness.[1] [2]

Heidegger’s language is intimidating, but his meaning is clear. “Lumen naturale” is Latin for “light of nature.” In medieval scholastic philosophy, it refers to the natural powers of mankind to know reality. The light of nature streams out from the human being and renders the world intelligible. It is the object-directed beam of consciousness, the subject-object relationship. Heidegger claims that the lumen naturale is a figurative way of talking about the human being as knower.

Heidegger uses the word “Dasein” to refer to human beings as knowers. Dasein is a German word for existence, but Heidegger hears it as a compound of “Da” and “Sein.Da means here/there, i.e., place, and Sein means “Being.” Dasein is thus the place where Being happens. Hence Heidegger’s claim that the human knower “is in such a way as to be its there [Da].”


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For Heidegger “Being” means the presence and absence of beings to Dasein. Hence his talk about Dasein as the being for whom “present-at-hand-beings [Vorhandenes] become accessible in the light [present] or concealed in the darkness [absent].”

How is the “light of nature” connected to “the place where Being happens” (Dasein)? The connection Heidegger draws is a metaphor that is also almost a play on words: “To say that it [the Da or “place” in Dasein] is ‘illuminated’ [erleuchtet] means that it is cleared [gelichtet] in itself as being-in-the-world, not by another being, but in such a way that it is itself the clearing [Lichtung].”

The German word Lichtung means “clearing,” as in a forest clearing, a kind of place (Da), but it also contains “Licht,” the German word for light. Thus the Lichtung seems like the perfect way of connecting the lumen naturale to a place where know-ledge happens.

What is the link between Lichtung and Licht? It seems like a straightforward etymological connection, but it is not that simple. First of all, the sense of Lichtung as a forest clearing is not derived from Licht but from the verb lichten, which does not mean to lighten in the sense of “to illuminate” but to lighten in the sense of “to free” or “to unburden,” as in clearing away trees and brush to create a free and open space. In the passage above, Heidegger is clearly aware that Lichtung is derived from lichten, hence he says that being erleuchtet (illuminated) presupposes being gelichtet (cleared).

Second, there seems to be a straightforward material connection between the Lichtung and Licht, for the Lichtung allows light to penetrate to the forest floor and illuminate it. But again, it is not so simple. The Lichtung as clearing is not merely a space for light/presence but also for the dark (das Dunkel)/absence. In its primary sense, a Lichtung is a free and open space, a place where one can encounter things both in the light and in the dark.

Perhaps to correct misunderstandings of the Lichtung in Being and Time, Heidegger revisited the concept in his later writings, such as “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking”:

The forest Lichtung is experienced in contrast to dense forest, called Dickung in our older language. The substantive Lichtung goes back to the verb lichten. . . . To lighten something means to make it light, free, and open, e.g., to make the forest free of trees at once place. The free space thus originating is the Lichtung. . . . Light can stream into the clearing, into its openness, and let brightness play with darkness in it. But light never first creates the Lichtung. Rather, light presupposes it. The clearing is the open region for everything that becomes present and absent.[2] [5]

Heidegger’s concept of the Lichtung does not fundamentally change with the development of his philosophy. What changes are (1) the context in which he discusses it and (2) his evaluation of its importance. In Being and Time, the Lichtung is discussed in passing in the context of what Heidegger called “transcendental-horizonal thinking.” In Heidegger’s later work, the Lichtung becomes a central concept in the context of what he called “Being-historical thinking.” (We will define these terms presently.)


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The horizon is one of the most commonly used concepts in continental philosophy. The horizon is the edge of our world.

The most common sense of horizon is “as far as the eye can see.” If you are on a “flat” surface, like the prairies of Saskatchewan or the surface of the ocean, you feel like you can see to the middle of next week. How far you can see depends on your height, of course, but on a “flat” surface, we can see a few miles to the horizon, where the earth’s curvature drops away, hiding what lies beyond it.

On the surface of the earth, the horizon is a circle. When we look above us, at the sky, by day it seems infinite, but at night, when stars and planets become visible, it is natural to envision the horizon as a star-studded hemisphere, the celestial dome. And if we are suspended in space, it is natural to envision the horizon as a sphere.

Hold fast to this image of a sphere. There was a time when consciousness did not exist. Beings existed, of course. Even living beings existed, like plants and primitive animals. But they were without consciousness, or with only the most primitive forms of consciousness, such as touch and taste. Such beings may have jostled and groped one another, even consumed and savored one another. But they did not know one other, meaning: they did not encounter one another at a distance, in a space. Thus one can envision the emergence of consciousness as a bubble—a spherical horizon in which objects can be encountered at a distance—opening in the midst of the density and darkness of blind nature.

The second sense of horizon is “the edge of the visual field.” Fix your eyes on a point in the distance. Place your hands in front of that point. Then move them to the left and the right, keeping your eyes fixed on the same spot. At a certain point, your hands will pass beyond a fuzzy line and disappear from your field of vision. That fuzzy line is its horizon.


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Both senses of horizon are human-centered concepts. Horizons are relative to the observer.

The first kind of horizon is as far as your eyes can see. The horizon is not fixed. It moves with you. It expands as you rise above the surface of the earth, and when you enter outer space, it extends untold billions of miles to the farthest visible object.

The second kind of horizon is the edge of your visual field. When you turn your head, the horizon turns with you. Things that were previously invisible become visible, and things that were previously visible slip beyond the horizon and disappear.

Both senses of horizon are primarily defined in terms of vision: as far as the eye can see, the edge of the visual field. But there are more ways of knowing than just seeing. There is an auditory horizon as well: a distance beyond which we cannot hear things. There are also olfactory horizons: things too far away to smell.

There are also auditory and olfactory equivalents of the edge of our visual field, horizons that shift as we move our ears and noses. Taste and touch, however, do not take place at a distance at all. They require contact, so they do not have the equivalent of the first kind of horizon, but they do have the equivalent of the second kind of horizon, namely the moving edge of our hands or tongues as we explore the objects they touch.

There is more to knowledge than just the senses. Concepts name individuals as well as whole kinds. Scientific and philosophical theories, as well as literary and religious narratives, extend our knowledge far beyond the visible.

We can also distinguish a third sense of horizon: the transcendental horizon. Knowledge only happens under certain conditions. These conditions can be divided into subjective and objective.

The objective conditions of knowledge are the things that are known. If there is no object, there is no knowledge. The object is “transcendent,” meaning that it “transcends” consciousness by being beyond it.

The “transcendental” is not the object. It refers to the subjective conditions of knowledge, i.e., what we contribute to knowing. We contribute both hardware and software to consciousness, the hardware being the universal and necessary structures and activities of our sense organs and brains, the software being our particular and contingent languages and experiences.[3] [10]


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For simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on the visible. The things that show up within the boundaries of your visual field (Horizon 2), as far as the eye can see (Horizon 1), are the objects of consciousness. These objects appear to us by virtue of our sense organs. They make sense to us in terms of our memories: our individual experiences and the collective experience of mankind present in our language and culture. When you see a green lawn, a bed of flowers, and an unwelcome piece of litter, you encounter them as meaningful in terms of your personal experience, language, and cultural expectations.

It is tempting to think of the hardware and software of consciousness as operating just behind the horizon of our visual field, i.e., outside the field of our awareness. They lurk in the dark woods, outside the clearing. When we see things, we do not see our eyes. We look through our eyes at visible objects. When we name and interpret these objects, we do not think about words. We use words to think about the objects. First and foremost, we are conscious of things, not conscious of our own consciousness. We are conscious of the transcendent, not the transcendental.

But we have the power to turn our attention toward consciousness. This kind of “reflection” is one of the tasks of philosophy. Although we are primarily engaged with objects present in the world, we can shift our focus and reflect on how objects become present to us. This form of philosophy is known as phenomenology.

Almost from the start, philosophers have reflected on the conditions for the possibility of knowledge. This reflective turn intensified with early modern philosophy. But early modern philosophers interpreted the transcendental conditions of knowledge as objects within the realm of consciousness, objects that fill up the horizon of consciousness, which led to the question: If we are aware of objects inside our consciousness, what relationship—if any—do the inner objects of consciousness have to an external world? The transcendental approach to philosophy, beginning with Kant and culminating with Husserl’s phenomenology, avoids this skeptical trap.[4] [13]

In Being and Time, the Lichtung is identified with Dasein, the human being qua knower. Lichtung/Dasein is a space in which things can appear, which is to say that Lichtung/Dasein is the transcendental horizon. This makes sense, as Heidegger began his career as a transcendental phenomenologist. He was Husserl’s star student and heir apparent.

I believe that Heidegger remained a transcendental phenomenologist throughout his career, insofar as he always maintained that the presence of beings has both transcendental and transcendent conditions. There needs to be an object, and we need to be capable of experiencing it. If there is no object, then nothing shows up. If we are not capable of experiencing an object, then nothing shows up. If there is an object, and we are able to experience it, knowledge happens.

But Heidegger increasingly obscured the transcendental-phenomenological nature of his thinking because he wished to distance himself from three common misunderstandings of this approach.

First, how things become present to us is not merely a matter of the universal and necessary “hardware” of consciousness. It is also a matter of historically contingent and variable “software” such as languages and cultures.

Second, we should never confuse phenomenology with the bad forms of modern philosophy that lose track of the external world by denigrating our ability to know anything outside of our consciousness.

Third, phenomenology is not a form of modern “humanism”: the grandiose delusion that nothing can resist our drive for ever greater knowledge and power.

To shake off these misunderstandings, Heidegger recast phenomenology in a radically new vocabulary—which invited a whole host of new misunderstandings.

For example, whereas Kant claimed that every object of knowledge has two aspects: the phenomenal, which is the object insofar as it is given to the human knower, and the noumenal, which is the object insofar as it transcends our awareness. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger speaks of the same two aspects as “world” and “earth.”[5] [14] A being is known to us insofar as it enters into “world,” meaning the transcendental horizon. The aspect of a being that transcends our awareness of it is its “earthy” dimension. This is classic transcendental philosophy recast in poetic language reminiscent of the pre-Socratic philosophers or Friedrich Hölderlin.

In Being and Time, Heidegger’s focus is on how the temporal structure of human consciousness is the horizon in which present objects become meaningful. It is a tour-de-force of transcendental phenomenology. But Heidegger believed that a transcendental account of meaning in terms of universal structures and activities of consciousness was inadequate. Heidegger did not regard Dasein as a “transcendental ego,” common to all men, a cosmopolitan “view from nowhere.” Instead, Dasein is a view from somewhere: a particular culturally and historically conditioned outlook.

Thus Heidegger’s later philosophy focuses on how the individual mind is embedded in collective, evolved historical practices—i.e., cultures and languages—that are always plural. These practices are ways of making sense of things. These sense-giving practices are what I have called the “software” of consciousness. To be economical with words, I am simply going to refer to sense-making practices and practical knowledge, with the understanding that these take many different forms.

Heidegger calls his later approach to philosophy “Being-historical thinking.” “Being” refers to how beings become present, and the “historical” refers to the evolved, contingent, and mutable bodies of practical knowledge that form the horizon in which beings become present.

Heidegger believed that all human sense-making takes place within the historical clearing, but his primary focus is philosophy. Hence in “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” he discusses the clearing as what is “unthought” in the philosophical tradition, using Hegel and Husserl as examples:

. . . what remains unthought in the matter of philosophy as well as its method? Speculative dialectic [in the Hegelian sense] is a mode in which the matter of philosophy comes to appear of itself and for itself, and thus becomes present [Gegenwart]. Such appearance necessarily occurs in luminosity. Only by virtue of some sort of brightness can what shines show itself, that is, radiate. But brightness in its turn rests upon something open, something free, which it might illuminate here and there, now and then. Brightness plays in the open and strives there with darkness. Wherever a present being encounters another present being or even only lingers near it . . . there openness already rules, the free region is in play. Only this openness grants to the movement of speculative thinking the passage through what it thinks.

We call this openness that grants a possible letting appear and show “clearing.” (pp. 318–19)

For Heidegger, the subject matter (Sache) of philosophy is the “Being of beings,” which is equivalent to “the presence of what is present” (p. 320). For Heidegger, however, beings become present through the interplay of presence and absence. The clearing is the space in which beings are encountered in their presence and absence: “Whether or not what is present is experienced, comprehended, or presented, presence as lingering in the open always remains dependent upon the prevalent clearing. What is absent too, cannot be as such unless it presences in the free space of the clearing” (p. 320).

The clearing is the context in which beings become present to us. It also names the context in which the Being of beings becomes present to philosophical reflection. It might be best, however, to speak of these as different clearings, because they are correlated to different forms of consciousness, i.e., ordinary consciousness and philosophical reflection.

Heidegger claims that even though the clearing allows things to become present, it itself remains absent:

All philosophical thinking that explicitly or inexplicitly follows the call “to the matter itself” is in its movement and with its method already admitted to the free space of the clearing. But philosophy knows nothing of the clearing. Philosophy does speak about the light of reason, but does not heed the clearing of Being. The lumen naturale, the light of reason, throws light only on the open. It does concern the clearing, but so little does it form it that it needs it in order to be able to illuminate what is present in the clearing. (p. 320)

But although Heidegger claims that philosophy knows nothing of the clearing, he does suggest that at the beginning of the Western philosophical tradition Parmenides unknowingly spoke about the clearing as “the untrembling heart of unconcealment [aletheia], well-rounded.” Aletheia (ἀλήθεια) is usually translated as “truth,” but Heidegger hears it as a combination of lethe (λήθη, concealment, oblivion) and the privative prefix ἀ, meaning “un,” hence unconcealment.

To describe unconcealment as “well-rounded” brings to mind the spherical horizon, the bubble of consciousness that allows humans to encounter objects within its context. It is the clearing, the transcendental horizon.

Having equated the clearing with aletheia as unconcealment, Heidegger returns to the question of why philosophy does not know the clearing/unconcealment:

How is it that aletheia, unconcealment, appears to man’s natural experience and speech only as correctness and dependability? Is it because man’s ecstatic sojourn in the openness of presencing is turned only toward what is present and the presentation of what is present? [Heidegger’s answer to this question is “yes.”] But what else does this mean than that presence as such, and together with it the clearing that grants it, remains unheeded? Only what aletheia as clearing grants is experienced and thought, not what it is as such. This remains concealed.

Heidegger’s point is that the clearing/unconcealment is hidden to philosophy because philosophy is focused on what appears in the clearing, not upon the clearing itself. This pattern can be observed in all forms of consciousness: our senses perceive objects, not themselves; when we use language to talk about things, we are not paying attention to language. As a general rule: when we are conscious of objects, we are not conscious of the conditions that make consciousness possible. Our focus cannot be two places at once. So if we are focused on what appears in the clearing, we are not aware of the clearing itself.

The concealment of the clearing is not, therefore, a matter of chance or momentary inattention. It is a necessary feature of consciousness. But Heidegger does not wish to speak about it in terms of consciousness and its acts. Instead, in keeping with the anti-humanism of his later philosophy, he ascribes “agency” to the clearing itself:

Does [the concealment of the clearing] happen by chance? [Heidegger’s answer is no.] Does it happen only as a consequence of the carelessness of human thinking? [No again.] Or does it happen because self-concealing, concealment, lethe, belongs to a-letheia, not as shadow to light, but rather as the heart of aletheia? [Yes.] Moreover, does not a sheltering and preserving rule in this self-concealing of the clearing of presence, from which alone unconcealment can be granted, so that which is present can appear in its presence? [Again, yes.]

If this were so, then the clearing would not be the mere clearing of presence, but the clearing of presence concealing itself, the clearing of a self-concealing sheltering. (pp. 323–24)

In other late texts, Heidegger calls the self-concealing of the clearing the “oblivion of Being.” In the world of technological nihilism—which Heidegger describes as the completion of the metaphysical tradition—not only are we oblivious of the clearing that makes presence possible, we are perfectly complacent about this fact. We are oblivious of our own oblivion.

How does the concept of the clearing undermine modern humanism? Heidegger claims that all knowledge, not just philosophy, depends upon the clearing. The clearing, however, consists of evolved, historically contingent sense-making practices. These practices are learned primarily by imitation, beginning in early childhood, far before the dawn of self-consciousness, much less critical reason.

To the modern humanist, these practices are “prejudices” that are accepted on mere authority and lack any rational foundation. Thus they are unworthy guides to life. To give these prejudices a rational foundation, we must be able to put them into words, specifically into propositions that can be verified or falsified. These propositions must then be tested for truth. The true ones will be kept, the false ones discarded.

This project presupposes that the sovereign intellect can fully know itself and cut all ties to beliefs that it cannot rationally justify. Moreover, the purgation of prejudice and reconstruction of the self is merely a prelude to the conquest and reconstruction of nature as a whole.

Heidegger’s critique of this sort of humanism is fundamental.

First, the self cannot fully know itself. Every act of consciousness focuses on its object, not itself. This is true even of self-consciousness. When we reflect on ourselves, we split consciousness into an object that is reflected upon and an act of reflection, which is focused on its object, not itself. No matter how many times we might try to turn consciousness on itself (reflecting upon reflecting upon reflecting upon consciousness), this pattern persists. No act of consciousness is conscious of itself. Consciousness forgets itself in order to focus on its object, even when that object is another part of the same consciousness.

Second, the whole process of reflecting upon, articulating, and testing sense-making practices requires the use of these practices. For instance, we cannot criticize language without using language. There is no Archimedean point from which one can survey, test, and reconstruct the whole of one’s practical knowledge. Thus such a critical process can only be partial and presupposes a background horizon of practices that we simply use rather than reflect upon and criticize, i.e., the very sort of “prejudices” that we are supposed to reject.

Third, there are limits to our ability to articulate and test knowledge. Perceptual and practical knowledge, in particular, cannot be fully articulated into words and tested. In these spheres, we always know more than we can say. Articulate propositional knowledge like “I own a big, blue bicycle” can be verified or falsified. But your ability to ride your bicycle, or your sense as a native speaker that “blue, big bicycle” is wrong and “big, blue bicycle” is right, cannot be articulated and tested in the same way. You can test your ability to ride a bicycle, or to speak about it, only by actually doing so. By demanding we discard all knowledge that does not meet the narrow model of articulate, propositional knowledge, modern humanism amounts to the imperative to make ourselves stupid.

Thus Heidegger agrees with our epigraph from D. H. Lawrence: “my soul is a dark forest. . . . my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.” The modern humanist thinks the forest is full of monsters only because he believes that the darkness destroys the clearing rather than makes it possible. Heidegger, however, sees the forest as filled with beneficent powers: the traditions of practical knowledge that connect us to our ancestors, grant us a collective destiny, and open up the clearing before us. Thus, like Lawrence, he can say that “gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.” Not everything handed down to us is good, of course, so there is no guarantee that we won’t be swept up in a wild hunt from time to time. But we cannot fundamentally understand, control, or reconstruct these traditions, and if we try, we will be cut off from their illuminating and life-giving power. Thus we need to relinquish the mania for control and have the courage to let the gods of the forest come and go.

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[1] [1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh and Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010), p. 129; Sein und Zeit (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1986), p. 133.

[2] [17] “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” trans. Joan Stambaugh, in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 319.

[3] [18] Software is not a perfect analogy, because we create software for computers, but we do not create the software of our own consciousness in the same way. Because we create software, we fully understand and control it. But language and culture evolved along with human beings. We did not create them, do not fully understand them, and cannot fully control them.

[4] [19] Kant accepted that human consciousness is finite, meaning that we can only know objects insofar as they can appear to our particular form of consciousness, i.e., insofar as they can enter our transcendental horizon. But what appears in our transcendental horizon is not a realm of inner representations, crowding out our view of the external world. It is the external world, insofar as it can be given to us.

Husserl clarified the relationship between ordinary consciousness and philosophical reflection so that the transcendental conditions of knowledge can no longer be confused with an inner world of representations blocking our access to the world of objects.

[5] [20] There are two English translations of “The Origin of the Work of Art”: Albert Hofstadter’s is in Poetry, Language, Thought, ed. and trans. by Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971) as well as the Basic Writings collection; Julian Young’s is in Off the Beaten Track, ed. and trans. by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).