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Reflections on Heidegger's Discussion on "Idle Talk"

Robert Solomon

To preface, I would like to point out the danger of understanding the following concepts too quickly. That kind of understanding, according to Heidegger, is a mere semblance, and not the real grasp that comes from struggling with something in order to make it one's own.

In my opinion then, "Idle Talk" is one of the most critical points we have come to thus far in our study of Heidegger, since it speaks directly to the process of our own dialogue; to the possibility of our own self deceptions; and to our mutual covering-over. The concept of "Idle Talk" asks us to wonder whether any of this is what is seems, or at least, what we are naming it together.

In the section on "Idle Talk", Heidegger refers back to his discussion from the section on understanding, discourse, and assertion. Throughout the section on "Idle Talk" and despite his preface of not being "disparaging", he positions himself firmly from the perspective of favoring a certain type of understanding, a certain type of Being: Being whose understanding is "grounded" in one's own experience in the world. Understanding that seeks to find the primordial source; the 'about' which brings one to a meaningful grasp of entities and contexts. In contrast, "Idle Talk" is posed as a "groundless" discourse concerning the topical 'about': a dialogue which presumes and represents itself as understanding, yet whose "understanding" one can never call "mine", since it merely refers to and in this way hides behind the belief that someone at some point understood this, so therefore it must be true.

This perspective seems to me to be accurate and valuable in reference to one engaged in phenomenological (or perhaps any rigorous) inquiry. But I wonder if this is the best or only perspective from which to explore the phenomenon of "publicness". In fact, Heidegger establishes early on that his discussion of "Idle Talk" is oriented toward understanding Dasein in its mode of "everydayness" and its "publicness". And although Heidegger seems to favor the private, non-ordinary, "authentic" modes of Dasein's being, to his credit he hints at a critical direction, which I would like to pursue further.

But before that, I will say a few words to clarify how I understand his usage of "positive" versus "negative" phenomena. Heidegger describes "Idle Talk" as a "positive phenomenon" of Being. I am wary of the tendency to read this distinction of positive/negative as good/bad. In contrast, I am certain that Heidegger intends to denote something like 'present/absent'. Hence, a "positive phenomenon" means "a demonstration of"--in this case, Being. Or in other words, "Idle Talk" is one way of Being, or a way that Being shows itself.

In the midst of a discussion about the concept of "Idle Talk", I think it will be helpful to define "idle". "Idle" refers to a state of inactivity. In usage, there is an implication of latency (defined as present or potential, but not manifest) or potentiality; not engaged, but could be at a moment's notice.

As in, "the engine is idling": the engine is on, but not in gear--a slight shift will set the whole thing in motion.

As in, "idle hands are the devil's playground": there is the sense that hands would otherwise be occupied, and even are given over to occupation--they won't stay idle, but will eventually be taken up by some activity.

But getting back to my main point, and jump starting with a quotation from Heidegger's section on "Being-there and Discourse. Language":

"Dasein-with is already essentially manifest in a co-state of mind and a co- understanding. In discourse, Being-with becomes 'explicitly' shared, that is to say, it is already, but it is unshared as something that has not been taken hold of and appropriated (p.205)."

Incidentally, I find myself wondering about the use of the value-laden term, explicit? Explicit means expressed with precision; clearly defined; specific. Isn't such specificity of definition an obstacle to possibility? Is an explicit discourse about Being-with (i.e. process dialogue) preferable? Is it likely to occur without slipping into presence-at-hand? What essentially distinguishes idle-talk from authentic discourse: authorship, presence, responsiveness?

Later on, in the section on "Idle-Talk":

"Discourse which expresses itself is communication. Its tendency of Being is aimed at bringing the hearer to participate is disclosed Being towards what is talked about in the discourse (p.211)."

I wonder what it would mean to participate in "undisclosed" being. Participation derives from the Latin part or part and ceps or taking, and is defined as joining or sharing with others--connoting an active intentionality.

"It is in the same averageness that we have a common understanding of what is said (p.212)."

Average is a primarily statistical expression denoting typicality and usualness.

"Being-with-one-another takes place in talking with one another and in concern with what is said-in-the-talk. To this Being-with-one-another, the fact that talking is going on is a matter of consequence."

" [i.e. idle talk] does not communicate in such a way as to let this entity be appropriated in a primordial manner (p.212)."*

Heidegger then launches into a diatribe against the "groundlessness of idle-talk" using 'negatively charged' words such as "gossiping"; "spreading around"; "scribbling'; 'superficial reading"; "rake up"; and "perverting". On page 217, Heidegger states:

"Idle talk is something which anyone can rake up, it not only releases one from the task of genuinely understanding, but develops an undifferentiated kind of intelligibility, for which nothing is closed off any longer (italics mine)." I can allow everything he says in that passage, except his attribution to "anyone". Any given form or lexicon of idle-talk, itself a kind of public discourse, is accessible only to those who share in a common affiliation. One group's idle-talk must vary from another's, and only members can participate in a social display of such public discourse.

On page 213, Heidegger talks about how, "discourse...has the possibility of becoming idle-talk." He goes on to say how (reified) idle-talk "by its very a closing-off"; that it "discourages any new inquiry and any disputation...with never a possibility of extrication."* *

Thus, Heidegger uses disparaging language to describe a positive (i.e. present) phenomenon of Being, and in so doing--closes off the possibility of seeing "idle-talk" as an inactive, yet latent moment of Being-with from which a genuinely grounded, shared, disclose discourse can emerge. From this latter perspective, "idle-talk" can be seen as the precondition for creating a ready proximity from which discourse has the possibility of emerging.

So in "idle-talk", two or more Dasein participate in an exchange of topically-relevant, but non-disclosed language. (One cannot say "ungrounded", since all shared language or discourse is grounded in a socio-cultural context). In that immediate context, the primary activity is not interpretation (i.e. the development of or working out of possibilities projected in understanding (pp.188-189)). However, Being-with is most definitely occurring. And I would add, there is a shared intentionality of the participants toward displaying commonality or membership with the implication: "I know this language and I will speak it with you to show my presence and affiliation."

Hence, divergence from the shared form--the expectable, average, common type of conversation--may be interpreted as a sign of disaffiliation and refusal to participate, with potentially marginalizing, inhospitable, and even hostile implication. And it may be that these uncomfortable feelings are precisely what "idle-talk" attempts to remedy.

I will end with a thought:

Those who do not follow the rules live in exile.

Robert Solomon


[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]