Sein und Zeichen (Being and Sign): Towards a Phenomenological Astrology

Sein und Zeichen (Being and Sign): Towards a Phenomenological Astrology

“Now is the time that gods came walking out/ of lived-in Things…/ Time that they came and knocked down every wall/ inside my house. [Jetzt wär es Zeit, daß Gӧtter trätten aus/ bewohnten Dingen…/ Und daß sie jede Wand in meinem Haus umschlügen.]” –Rilke, Fragment.

When we think of the future of technology, we no longer imagine flying cars, robot butlers, or peaceful space colonies. Mere technological advance is no longer considered sufficient to solve our problems. In fact, many of today’s most formidable problems are themselves the direct result of such technological “progress”. Rather than allowing us to colonize nature, technology has colonized us.  Our emotions are dictated by our social media feeds, and, as our attentions wander from hashtag to hashtag in these virtual deserts, our spirits grow ever more parched, fragile, and infirm. And, worse yet, this promises to be only the beginning of our woes, as a totalitarian technocratic state is rapidly erected before our eyes and marketed as “the new normal.”[1]

It is tempting to think that this situation is the result of the undue influence of a handful of bad actors.[2] If we could just find a way to prosecute greedy CEOs and hold politicians accountable for their actions, the world would be humanized once more and we would be free to use technology to serve humanity, rather than the other way around. Yet, while I agree that history unfolds through our individual choices, and that, as Solzhenitsyn observed, the line between good and evil is ultimately determined by the human heart, I also suspect there is more to the story here regarding our relationship to technology.

Heidegger and the Question Concerning Technology

This suspicion was shared by the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger believed that the essence of modern technology lies neither in the nature nor function of various mechanical tools, but in the worldview presupposed by them. It lies in the way they dictate our interpretation of reality. According to Heidegger, we thus will not find technology’s essence by looking at the blueprint of a drill or hydroelectric plant, but must turn instead to considering how they present the world to us. “Technology is…no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing.”[3]

Example of Revealing: Ancient Greek Statue

To better understand Heidegger’s claim that technology is a mode of revealing, consider two contrasting ways of looking at the remains of an ancient Greek sculpture. The first is expressed by Rilke in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo (Aracaïcher Torso Apollos)”:

“We cannot know his legendary head/

With eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso/

Is still suffused with brilliance from inside,/

Like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned low,/

Gleams in all its power. Otherwise/

The curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could/

A smile run through the placid hips and thighs/

To that dark center where procreation flared./

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced/

Beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders/

And would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:/

Would not, from all the borders of itself,/

Burst like a star: for here there is no place/

That does not see you. You must change your life.”[4]

Here one meets the gaze of a departed god, and in the spectral glow of that illumination, traversing the distance of ages like starlight, is compelled to see oneself anew and change one’s life accordingly.

In contrast, the second way of looking at the sculpture is exemplified by the contemporary museumgoer who, while on a guided tour, eyes it as a prop with which to take a selfie. Here, the absent god no longer steps forth to traverse the ages, but, what appears is, at best, only a lump sum of cultural capital to boost one’s image and advance one’s brand. One sees the chiseled stone not as an artwork, a sensible manifestation of the Absolute, but as a resource to be converted into clicks and likes and the profits derived from them.

These two contrasting cases illustrate how our ways of approaching the world determine what is revealed to us. The difference between glimpsing your soul through the absent visage of a forgotten god and spotting an opportunity to expand your brand, lies not in the marble before you, but in your manner of approaching it (or, perhaps, its manner of approaching you). Heidegger claims that this is the situation that governs our approach to the essence of modern technology. To understand it, we will need to apprehend how it reveals the world to us.

The Essence of Modern Technology

Heidegger argues that the essence of modern technology consists in revealing reality through the challenge (Herausforderung) to set-upon (stellen) it as a standing reserve (Bestand). Note that there are two components to the revealing here: the challenging to set-upon reality, and the representation of it as a standing reserve. The first concerns the manner in which something is presented to us. For example, consider various ways of being related to a German Shepherd. If he is your pet, you will likely approach him with affection; but, if you are a burglar breaking into his house, you will likely withdraw from him in terror.  States such as love, hate, fear, apprehension, thought, sense, conviction, etc. are all ways of relating to reality. We can perceive something lovingly, or fearfully. We can entertain it as a mere thought or assert it with deep conviction as a cherished belief. According to Heidegger, the way that technology dictates our approach to reality is through the challenge to set upon it for our purposes.  In other words, as a worldview, the essence of modern technology is the presentation of the world under the mode of exploitation. Heidegger explains:

“The setting-upon that challenges the energies of nature is an expediting, and in two ways. [Das Stellen, das die Naturenergien herausfordert, ist ein Fördern in einem doppelten Sinne.] It expedites in that it unlocks and exposes. Yet that expediting is always itself directed from the beginning toward furthering something else, i.e., toward driving on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense. The coal that has been hauled out in some mining district has not been produced in order that it may simply be at hand somewhere or other. It is being stored; that is, it is on call, ready to deliver the sun’s warmth that is stored in it. The sun’s warmth is challenged forth for heat, which in turn is ordered to deliver steam whose pressure turns the wheels that keep a factory running.

The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long distance power station and its network cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command.”[5]

In this manner, all reality appears as something to be challenged and set upon as a resource to be used as efficiently as possible in a system of exploitation. This brings us to the second way technology reveals reality. In addition to our manner of relating to objects (e.g. through love, fear, hatred, contemplation, belief, denial, etc.), we also represent objects as the objects they purport to be. For example, one might fear both sharks and public speaking, but sharks and crowds are clearly different entities. The one eviscerates with its teeth; the other with its scorn. Hence, though the representational states involved in fearfully swimming with a shark and fearfully speaking before a crowd might share the common feature of presenting the world through fear, they are nonetheless different states because they purport to refer to different objects, viz. sharks and crowds. Thus, in order to account for our approach to reality, we not only need to account for how it is presented to us (its mode of presentation), but what it is presented as (its representational content).  According to Heidegger, modern technology reveals reality as standing reserve [Bestand], designating “nothing less than the way in which every thing presences that is wrought upon by the revealing that challenges.”[6] When represented as standing-reserve, everything is equivalent to and replaceable with everything else, since anything one approaches is taken as something to be exploited to generate the maximum yield at minimum cost. Heidegger contrasts this representation of reality as indifferently interchangeable units of standing reserve with the representation of truly natural objects such as the human hand. He explains:

“Even that which we name a machine part is, strictly thought, never a part. Indeed it fits into the gearing, but as an exchangeable piece. My hand, on the contrary, is not a piece of me. I myself am entirely in each gesture of the hand, every single time.”[7]

The hand, when it is revealed as a hand, is represented as part of an organic whole with which it forms an expressive unity. A hand can be strong or frail, decisive or diffident, and it makes a great deal of difference whether a hand is my hand, for it cannot be swapped out for another model on a whim. This is not the case for standing reserve; it consists only of interchangeable pieces, not parts. If a hand were to appear as standing reserve it would no longer be represented as a hand, but as a resource to be exploited. It might, for instance, be viewed as a possible fertilizer because of the nutrients it contains or taken as a biological factory in which to create further resources.

Enframing (Gestell)

This brings us to a yet deeper issue. It is tempting to read Heidegger as claiming that, through technology, humanity exploits nature and appropriates it as standing reserve. This is, no doubt, true, but Heidegger believes that technology poses an even greater danger, since it dictates our relation to all Being, even the human being. As a result, when viewed through the lens of modern technology, we are ourselves reduced to mere pieces of standing reserve. He explains:

“Only to the extent that man for his part is already challenged to exploit the energies of nature can this revealing that orders happen. If man is challenged, ordered, to do this, then does not man himself belong even more originally than nature within the standing reserve? The current talk about human resources, about the supply of patients for a clinic, gives evidence of this. The forester who measures the felled timber in the woods and who to all appearances walks the forest path in the same way his grandfather did is today ordered by the industry that produces commercial woods, whether he knows it or not. He is made subordinate to the orderability of cellulose, which for its part is challenged forth by the need for paper, which is then delivered to newspapers and illustrated magazines. The latter, in their turn, set public opinion to swallowing what is printed, so that a configuration of opinions is available on demand.”[8]

So man is himself set upon by the demand to treat himself as a standing reserve. Heidegger calls modern technology’s mode of the revealing the totality of Being “enframement (Gestell)”. According to Heidegger,

“Enframing (Gestell) means the gathering together of the setting-upon that sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the actual, in the mode of ordering, as standing reserve. Enframing means the way of revealing that holds sway in the essence of modern technology and that is itself nothing technological.”[9]

Because enframing is a way of revealing the whole of reality, Heidegger claims it transcends the merely human dimension. Rather, enframing is a destiny that unfolds from within Being itself.

“Man does not decide whether and how beings appear, whether and how God and the gods or history and nature come forward into the clearing of Being, come to presence and depart. The advent of beings lies in the destiny of Being.”[10]

Because enframing is thus a destiny flowing from within Being itself, it proves to be our greatest danger. For it is not something we can overcome by simply voting out a political party or breaking up a monopoly. Indeed, Heidegger laments that the danger is so immense that no merely human action will suffice to turn the tide; only a God could save us. An interviewer once asked him:

“Can the individual man in any way still influence this web of fateful circumstance? Or, indeed, can philosophy influence it? Or can both together influence it, insofar as philosophy guides the individual, or several individuals, to a determined action.”[11]

To this Heidegger responded:

“If I may answer briefly, and perhaps clumsily, but after long reflection: philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor. Only a god can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or for the absence of a god in [our] decline, insofar as in view of the absent god we are in a state of decline.”[12]

Thus, according to Heidegger, the most important thing humanity can do is to clear a space and listen for the voice of a God, should he or she turn to us in grace and choose to speak. Heidegger believes that such a drawing near of the divine, even if only in absence, would constitute a different destiny of Being. Rather than revealing the world as a standing reserve, the thing would shine forth as a fourfold crossing of earth, sky, gods, and mortals.

The Thing and the Fourfold

The Thing

Heidegger contrasts what he calls “the thing (das Ding)” with standing-reserve (Bestand) as alternative destinies of Being. Rather than something to be set-upon and exploited, Heidegger claims that, “the thing things. Thinging gathers. (Das Ding dingt. Das Dingen versammelt.)”[13]  Tracing the etymological roots of “thing” to the Old High German, he claims that it:

“means gathering and indeed a gathering for the negotiation of an affair under discussion, a disputed case. Consequently the Old High German words thing and dinc become the name for an affair; they name what concernfully approaches the human in some way, what accordingly is under discussion.”[14]

In contrast to the enframing which reduces man to standing reserve, the thing relates to the human as human and approaches us with concern. And, in contrast to the interchangeability of units of standing reserve, “thinging gathers.” It lets things stand in their determinate natures without trying to convert them into something else. Specifically, in addressing humanity as humanity, the thing gathers together what Heidegger calls the fourfold (das Geviert) of earth, sky, divinities, and mortals. He maintains, “The thing things. By thinging it lets the earth and sky, divinities and mortals abide.” (Das Ding dingt. Dingend verweilt es Erde und Himmel, die Göttlichen und die Sterblichen).[15]

The thing, for Heidegger, is thus essentially relational. We are accustomed to thinking of relations as merely external. A German Shepherd might jump on your lap to greet you, and then jump off again. So, at one moment he would be on your lap, and, at another, not on your lap but on the floor instead. Yet, though his relations to your lap and the floor changed, the German Shepherd himself never stopped being the German Shepherd that he is. In other words, the relations that he bore to your lap and the floor were merely external relations. He can gain and lose them without ceasing to be the entity that he is. But relations can also be essential to an entity. Such relations are called internal relations. Consider, for example, a heart. A heart is what it is because it pumps blood through the rest of the body. If it bore no relation to the circulatory system, it would not be a heart. Heidegger thus appears, in his own inimitable style, to be claiming that the thing is constituted by its internal relations. Specifically, the thing is internally related to what he calls earth, sky, divinities, and mortals, each of which is also internally related to all the others. He likens this cluster of internal relations between the four to a mirror-play (das Spiegel-Spiel) in which each reflects the others back to itself. Let’s examine each of these four in more detail.

The Fourfold

Earth (Die Erde): The Earth, for Heidegger, is that which bears humanity as it stands erect under heaven. It is the grounding and supporting source of all we build. According to Heidegger, “the earth is the building bearer, what nourishingly fructifies, tending waters and stones, plants and animals. [Die Erde ist die bauend Tragende, die nährend Fruchtende, hegend Gewässer und Gestein, Gewächs und Getier.]”[16] Earth is that which allows buildings to appear as dwellings, water as a source of life and purification, and grants stones the power to stand forth as stones, plants as plants, and animals as animals, not mere natural resources to be exploited.

            Heidegger illustrates this idea of the earth as a sheltering agent by asking us to consider a Greek temple. He observes:

“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. It is the temple-work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being. The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people. Only from and in this expanse does the nation first return to itself for the fulfillment of its vocation.

            Standing there, the building rests on the rocky ground. This resting of the work draws up out of the rock the obscurity of that rock’s bulky yet spontaneous support. Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm itself manifest in its violence. The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, first brings to radiance the light of day, the breadth of the sky and the darkness of the night. The temple’s firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air. The steadfastness of the work contrasts with the surge of the surf, and its own repose brings out the raging of the sea. Tree and grass, eagle and bull, snake and cricket first enter into their distinctive shapes and thus come to appear as what they are. The Greeks early called this emerging and rising in itself and in all things physis. It illuminates also that on which and in which bases his dwelling. We call this ground the earth. What this word says is not to be associated with a mass of matter deposited somewhere, or with the merely astronomical idea of a planet. Earth is that whence the arising brings back and shelters everything that arises as such. In the things that arise, earth occurs essentially as the sheltering agent. (Die Erde ist das, wohin das Aufgehen alles Aufgehende und zwar als ein solches zurückbirgt. Im Aufgehenden west die Erde als das Bergende.)”[17]

The earth, for Heidegger, is thus the sheltering space that allows entities to stand forth as what they are, holding and preserving their natures.

Sky (Der Himmel): The sky, according to Heidegger, shines upon earth, enlightening it and marking the flow of time. He observes: “The sky is the path of the sun, the course of the moon, the gleam of the stars, the seasons of the year, the light and twilight of day, the dark and bright of the night, the favor and inclemency of the weather, drifting clouds, and blue depths of ether.” [Der Himmel ist der wölbende Sonnengang, der gestaltwechselnde Mondlauf, der wandernde Glanz der Gestirne, die Zeiten des Jahres und ihre Wende, Licht und Dämmer des Tages, Dunkel und Helle der Nacht, das Wirtliche und Unwirtliche der Wetter, Wolkenzug und blauende Tiefe des Äthers.][18] Returning to our example of the temple, just as the earth grounds and shelters the temple from below, the sky shines upon it from above, conveying the times and thereby determining the ritual life within it. The sky is the heavenly realm towards which the temple’s orderly columns aspire.

Divinities (die Göttlichen): Divinities, for Heidegger, are akin to what ancient Greek philosophers would have called daimons (δαίμων) and theologians in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions termed angels (ἄγγελος). Divinities are not God, but God’s messengers to us. It is through their mediation that the divine makes itself known. Heidegger explains: “The divinities are the hinting messengers of godhood. From the concealed reign of these there appears the god in his essence, withdrawing him from every comparison with what is present.” (Die Göttlichen sind die winkenden Boten der Gottheit. Aus dem heiligen Walten dieser erscheint der Gott in seine Gegenwart oder er entzieht sich in seine Verhüllung.)[19] Divinities thus constitute the domain of the holy through which we perceive God as either present or absent.

Mortals (Die Sterblichen): Humans, for Heidegger, are best described as mortals. Men are insofar as they die. What sets us apart as a species, according to Heidegger, is that we can face death as death. He explains:

“The mortals are the humans. They are called the mortals because they are able to die. Dying means: to be capable of death as death. Only the human dies. The animal comes to an end. It has death as death neither before it nor after it. Death is the shrine of the Nothing, namely of that which in all respects is never some mere being, but nonetheless essences, namely as Being itself. Death, as the shrine of Nothing, harbors in itself what essences of Being. As the shrine of the Nothing, death is the refuge of Being. The mortals we now name the mortals–not because their earthly life ends, but rather because they are capable of death as death. The mortals are who they are as mortals by essencing in the refuge of Being. They are essencing relationship to Being as Being.”[20]

Heidegger thus believes that only humans are capable of death in the strict sense of the term. Other creatures perish, but only we die. What he means by this is that human experience is constituted by a relation to an awareness of its own finitude. Human nature, which Heidegger calls Dasein, has an essential relation to Being. We are the kinds of beings that worry about the meaning of Being. Or, in Heidegger’s earlier terminology from Being and Time, Dasein “is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that Being is an issue for it.” (Das Dasein ist ein Seiendes, das nicht nur unter anderem Seienden vorkommt. Es ist vielmehr dadurch ontisch ausgezeichnet, daß es diesem Seienden in seinem Sein um dieses Sein selbst geht.”)[21]  He claims that this fundamental question of Being (Seinsfrage) is usually neglected as men fall under the dictatorship of “the they” (das Man), simply taking up the interpretation of being that has been handed to them by their culture.[22] But he notes that humanity also has the ability to live authentically, and this, he believes, requires facing death. He believes that death is capable of individuating an individual and constituting his or her life as a whole. No one else can die your death for you. Only you can. It is something that is intrinsically your own. Furthermore, the meaning of your human life is not complete until you die. Before it, there will always be a part of your story that is still outstanding. But, when death does come, you are no longer there as a human to experience it. You will either have ceased to exist entirely or have taken up a new (non-human) form of existence as a disembodied soul. Thus, the very thing that it capable of individuating your life and rendering it complete, is the thing that is forever out of reach. As a result, Heidegger calls death the impossible possibility of human life. And, so, for Heidegger, to be human is to be essentially incomplete, since human experience is essentially finite and temporal.[23] This is what he alludes when he claims that Being is revealed to mortals under the guise of the Nothing.

Note how the each of these four (earth, sky, divinities, and mortals) is constituted by its internal relations to the others. The earth earths only as the ground upon which mortals dwell, over which the sky casts its light, and to which the divinities descend. The sky skies only as the horizon of mortal time, under which the earth offers its support, and through which the divinities send their omens. Divinities divine only for mortals, flashing from sky to earth. And, finally, mortals mortal only by dwelling upon the earth and under the sky, responding to the messages of the divinities.

The thing, and the fourfold from and to which it radiates, is thus an alternative revelation of Being. It is a way for us to approach the world (and for the world to approach us) that is not governed by enframing (Gestell).

Astrology as a Revelation of the Fourfold

Heidegger believes that the best way to allow for the thing to step forth and reveal a new orientation to Being through the fourfold is to attend to language, since “language is the house of Being.”[24] Because our orientation to Being is shaped by the language that we speak, or perhaps more accurately, by the language that speaks us,[25] Heidegger maintains that if Being is to deign to reveal itself to us in a new way, we must contemplate it in language. Specifically, Heidegger turns to the fragments of a few presocratic philosophers and the poetry of some German poets (Hӧlderlin, Novalis, and Trakl) in his attempt to think Being anew. In so doing, he grounds much of his account in his own peculiar philosophical reflections on the etymology of a handful of ancient Greek and Old German words. While I believe that there is much to be learned from such an approach, having even undertaken it myself on a few occasions, I do not believe that it is the only, or even the best, way approach Being as the fourfold.[26] For, I contend that the language ancient astrology is also suited to the task and that the phenomenological astrology that results from reflection upon this language has some advantages over Heidegger’s approach. 

Astrology as an Alternative Approach to the Fourfold

The basic framework of astrology is essentially articulated in terms of the fourfold of earth, sky, divinities, and mortals. Consider, for example, a natal chart, one of the central elements of the language of astrology. A natal chart is a representation of the heavens overhead at the place and time of a person’s birth. Note, first, how the relation between heaven and earth is essential here. The chart is a map of the sky as viewed from a particular place on earth. What is directly above that place is marked by the midheaven (called the MC, medium coeli, the middle of the sky), and its opposite point is called the subterraneous place lying under it (or the IC, Imum Coeli, bottom of the sky). Likewise the intersection of earth and sky determines the Ascendent (or AC) from which planets rise over the horizon and the Descendant (or DC) from which they set below the horizon. Earth and sky are thus not only essential to astrology, but they are presented within it as being internally related to each other. Astrologers, unlike contemporary astronomers, do not seek to catalogue all the stars in the heavens, to determine their chemical compositions, or to plot their relations to one another in abstract space. Rather, they concern themselves only with heaven’s meaningful relations with the earth on which mortals, those subject to the law of fate, dwell. Furthermore, in treating heavenly bodies as meaningful omens, astrologers represent them as divinities who bring tidings of the Godhead. And, given that natal charts represent the moment of birth, they carry in themselves the quality of that time and bear an essential relation to death. For example, in the tropical Zodiac, the relation to time and mortality is woven into the very meaning of the Zodiacal signs. For signs are given their meaning, in part, by their association with the various seasons of the year, and in thus depicting the unyielding march from spring to winter, they are essentially related to time and its cycles of life and death.[27]

Advantages of a Phenomenological Astrology

Not only is astrology an unexplored avenue for thinking the fourfold, but it also has some advantages over Heidegger’s own more etymological approach.

I. More Accessible

At times, Heidegger appears to have believed that the destiny of Being was somehow uniquely connected to the German language. German, he asserted, somehow mirrored ancient Greek more closely, and was thus for some reason a purer instrument of thought than other languages. While I will not deny the profundity and power of die deutsche Sprache, I do believe that Heidegger may have been misguided in his assumption that the world would be using it as its lingua franca. As a result, it can be extremely difficult to enter into Heidegger’s imaginative musings on the fourfold. One has to learn basic Greek and German to follow his associative trains of thought, and most people today, unfortunately, have not taken the time to do this. But if, in contrast, one approaches the fourfold through the language of astrology, then the project is rendered more accessible. For, though the language astrology can be difficult, it is not nearly as difficult as learning Heideggerese, since astrology’s basic concepts are grounded in our everyday lifeworld.

II. A More Essential Connection to the Fourfold

As noted earlier, the language of astrology is essentially connected to the fourfold, and, as a result, has a closer relation to it than other modes of inquiry do. Here we have a language system specifically designed as a divinatory system for man. Indeed, if one seeks to learn how Being destines itself, it is natural to turn to our most primordial language of destiny and fate.

III. Less Subjective

Finally, I contend that late Heidegger is not successful in extricating himself from what he takes to be the subjectivity of earlier approaches to phenomenology. To understand this problem, we will need to step back to briefly survey the development of phenomenology. As it is usually told, the story begins with Descartes and his Meditations on First Philosophy. Living through the horrors of 17th century European wars of religion, Descartes wanted to ground philosophy in absolute certainty. If human thought could begin from indubitable foundations, and build upon them through deductive inferences, it might be able to construct a system to which all people might assent. And, as a result, they might stop murdering each other in the name of God.  To reach such certainty, Descartes claimed that philosophy needed to begin with doubt, since whatever can be doubted is something that is not absolutely certain.[28] So, the philosopher must comb through all of his or her beliefs and throw out all that can be doubted. When he undertook this experiment, Descartes ended up rejecting most of his beliefs. He might, after all, be dreaming, and thus be mistaken about the nature of his surroundings. Or, things could be even worse, and he may be the creation of a malicious god whose sole purpose in making him was to deceive him in every conceivable way. In this manner, he might even be deceived about seemingly compelling a priori intuitions such as “a triangle has three sides” or “2 + 2 =4”.  But, even in such a dire situation, Descartes claimed that there was nonetheless something he could be certain of: his own consciousness. For even if he was deceived by an evil demon, he would still be aware of himself as a thinker. Hence, his famous declaration: cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am.[29]

This insight was later picked up by Edmund Husserl who noted that it could be separated from the question of skepticism. Husserl observed that we could take up the approach to consciousness revealed in the cogito without actually calling the existence of the external world into question. We would instead simply make no use of it in our investigation of the structure of consciousness. We would put it out of play, holding it under what he calls the epoché, without thereby denying its existence. Thus, when we explore the world phenomenologically, we do not need to doubt the existence of the external world. It is simply irrelevant to our investigations. For example, in analyzing the structure of your experience of returning home and being greeted by your dog at the door, the external existence of your dog is irrelevant. Whether your perception is correct or not, your experience still purports to be of a dog, and this purporting occurs both when you actually see him and when you merely hallucinate him.[30]

Heidegger was a student of Husserl and adopted his phenomenological method, but he found it to be too limited by its subjective orientation.  Traditional phenomenology, according to Heidegger, begins with reflective consciousness and its analysis of the contents that confront it, but it never expands beyond this perspective. Heidegger thus argues in his early work Being and Time that much of our experience of reality is not a matter of conscious reflection. Consider, for example, your relation to your knife and fork as you eat dinner. These are clearly meaningful parts of your experience. You are clearly aware of them. If you didn’t know where they were, you wouldn’t be able to effortlessly pick them up and use them to take a bite of food. And you clearly interpret them as bearing particular meanings. They are, for example, utensils to eat with. You don’t pick them up and attempt to consume them as if they were themselves food. But this kind of awareness is different from the reflective awareness of traditional phenomenology. In using a knife and fork, we don’t focus on them as the explicit objects of our attention and try to descry their eidetic essences.

Heidegger called the way that such objects appeared in their average everydayness, readiness-to-hand (Zuhandenheit), and contrasted it with the more reflective way of representing them which he called presence-to-hand (Vorhandenheit). Heidegger argued that ready-to-hand objects appeared as meaningful only in light of the equipment totalities of which they were a part, and that these totalities were themselves given meaning either inauthentically by the they, or grasped authentically when one faced one’s own being-towards-death resolutely. As the name of the work “Being and Time” suggests, Heidegger believed that the meaning of Being would, in this manner, ultimately be disclosed by the human experience of time. Yet, the work remained unfinished, because Heidegger came to believe that one could not articulate the meaning of Being from such a standpoint. He meant to conclude the book with a third division entitled Time and Being, where he would show how the analysis of Dasein, that being for whom Being is an issue, revealed the meaning of Being. But he found he couldn’t do so in the language of traditional metaphysics, which, he believed was itself caught up in the enframing (Gestell) of modern technology. He thus found that the language of Being and Time was incapable of articulating the unfolding of Being on its own terms. He explains,

“The adequate execution and completion of this other thinking that abandons subjectivity is surely made more difficult by the fact that in that publication of Being and Time the third division of the first part, “Time and Being,” was held back. Here everything is reversed. The division in question was held back because thinking failed in the adequate saying of this turning [Kehre] and did not succeed with the help of the language of metaphysics.”[31]

This is the reason why Heidegger turned to the phenomenological exploration of language, looking into its etymology and the thinking revealed in poetry. He hoped that, by beginning with language, the house of Being, he would be able to articulate the unfolding of Being on its own terms and transcend the subjective perspective of Dasein.

But it is not obvious that Heidegger’s late etymological musings are any less subjective than those of earlier phenomenology. Why, for example, would Being reveal itself most authentically in ancient Greek and German poetry, and not, for example, in the Sanskrit of the Vedas or the Chinese of the Tao Te Ching? And why should we think of language as any more objective than the spirit (Geist) from which it springs? One might, in an idealist fashion, argue that there is no gap between language and reality, but, if that is so, why not also accept idealism’s corresponding contention that there is no gap between consciousness and reality?

An analysis of the language of astrology might be better suited for the sort of non-subjective approach to the unfolding of Being for which Heidegger strives on several grounds. First, the language of astrology, has, from its outset, sought to capture the unfolding of the destiny of Being in world history. In astrological terms, Western astrology started as mundane astrology, an astrology of world history. For example, astrologer Chris Brennan, observes that in its earliest manifestations:

“The type of astrology that was practiced in Mesopotamia was limited to what modern astrologers refer to as ‘mundane astrology,’ which is a branch of astrology that deals with large groups of people such as cities and nations. The astrological omens were interpreted as messages that pertained to the state as a whole, or sometimes to the king as the earthly representative of the state.”[32]

Astrology was thus not formulated from the perspective of the individual subject, but in view of the unfolding of history through nations. This would make it a promising candidate for a phenomenological analysis seeking to explicate how Being destines itself through human history.

Second, the language of astrology is inextricably bound up with a world which transcends the human. For example, to speak the language of astrology, one must refer to other planets besides the earth. One must, for example, be able to speak of not only of the sun and moon as luminaries, but of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn and the transcendent forces that they represent. Indeed, one may think of astrology as an attempt to inquire into the supramundane grounds of mundane events. So, again, it is worth exploring whether this language could have allowed Heidegger to escape the subjectivity he believed to plague the philosophical tradition he inherited.

And finally, because the language of astrology essentially involves the motions of the heavenly bodies visible from earth, it also is a language that has bearing for all people on the planet. Everyone can appreciate the rising and setting of the sun and the change of seasons. As a result, one has grounds to think that it may be a more universal language than the ancient Greek and old German and to which Heidegger turned. And, since it has a more universal scope with respect to humanity, perhaps it also has a better chance of transcending the human perspective altogether.

Conclusion: Advantages for Astrology

Thus far I have considered only the philosophical advantages of developing a phenomenological astrology. I would like to conclude by considering how the development of such an approach could be advantageous to the practice of astrology of itself. Western astrology, as it is practiced today, is an amalgamation of many practices that are not always consistent with one another. One of the biggest fissures holds between those who adopt a more traditional form of astrology and those who adopt a more modern approach. Though historically older, the frameworks and techniques of traditional Hellenistic astrology, are, in some sense, more innovative than more modern forms of astrology, since the texts containing them have only recently been found and translated.[33] Those who have adopted this recovered tradition tend to view astrology as depicting the external events of a person’s life. In contrast, those who adopt more modern approaches to astrology tend to view it as depicting a person’s internal psychological states. For example, someone operating from a more traditional approach might take the sun in Aries to indicate that the native’s father is a soldier, whereas someone operating in the more modern style might view this placement as indicating that the native has a fiery and impulsive ego. These approaches can conflict with one another, and, so, one of the most pressing needs in contemporary Western astrology is to articulate a model that can subsume them both under a coherent practice. For example, Brennan concludes his book on Hellenistic Astrology by observing that:

“Ultimately the purpose of studying the ancient traditions of astrology is not necessarily to go back into the past and stay there. Instead, the goal should be to look back into the past, reconstruct and understand what the tradition was, and then bring some of the best parts forward into the future…. What comes next is the merging of the contemporary and ancient traditions, and in that we will see the emergence of a synthesis that will mark a new epoch in the astrological tradition, in the same way that the confluence of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian astrological traditions was part of what led to the creation of Hellenistic astrology two thousand years ago. It is in this sense that I believe that by looking back into the past we can and will create a better astrology for the future.”[34]

I contend that phenomenological astrology could constitute just such a framework for synthesizing the two rival approaches to the field. As noted earlier, this phenomenological approach would be oriented towards Being, and, so, like the traditional approach will be concerned with the unfolding events in the native’s world, not merely his or her psychological states. It seeks to characterize the world outside the native’s head. But, since it is a phenomenological approach, it will also, like the modern approach, retain an essential relation to consciousness. The world, phenomenologically conceived, exists as world only because it is the world for subjects and in which they dwell.

To use Hegelian terms (and at the risk of adding further obscurity the Heideggerian language used so far), the traditional approach can be seen as representing astrology’s in-itself (an sich) moment, the modern approach its for-itself (für sich) moment, and the phenomenological approach its in-and-for-itself (an und für sich) moment. Traditional astrology takes the world to consist of discrete entities that are what they are in themselves. It presupposes that a father is a father and not a mother. A mother is a mother and not a father. A child is a child and not a parent. Etc. Modern astrology, in contrast, has the resources to consider how each of these determinate categories lose themselves in their opposites. In virtue of what is a mother a mother? Jung might say because she expresses the archetype of motherhood. But this archetype is itself complex, capable of being expressed in multiple contradictory ways, and can be found in all humans. Thus, the mother archetype exists within the father and the child. And, further, these archetypal contents are likely co-constituted. Mother can exist as mother only because of its relations to child and father, and vice versa. But, in using the contents of empirical psychology, modern astrology can get lost in subjectivity and relativism, losing sight of the objective world that can ground its speculations and allow the dialectical play of concepts to resolve itself into some kind of determinacy. Such an objective world might be regained in a phenomenological astrology. For by inquiring into how determinate contents are generated through the unfolding of the destining of Being, they could be rendered into stable units of meaning and correlated with the objective world, an objective world rendered objective by being objective for consciousness. Phenomenology might thus, by attempting to investigate the unfolding of Being on its own terms, allow Western astrology to reconcile its two rival sects. And, in so doing, it might also allow us to avoid appropriating astrology as yet one more piece of standing-reserve (Bestand), a problem that Porphyry, a philosopher and astrologer, was aware of long ago:

“But by those who have devised the means of associating with beings more excellent than man, if the investigation of this subject [i.e. the soul’s journey into Being] is omitted, wisdom will be professed by them in vain; as they will only disturb a divine intellect about the discovery of a fugitive slave, or the purchase of land, or, if it should so happen, about marriage, or merchandize. And if they do not omit this subject, but assert what is most true about other things, yet say nothing that is stable and worthy of belief about felicity, in consequence of employing themselves about things that are difficult, but useless to mankind; in this case, they will not be conversant either with Gods or good daemons, but with that daemon who is called fraudulent; or, if this is not admitted, the whole will be the invention of men, and the fiction of a mortal nature.”[35]

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The Image used in the thumbnail of this essay is from Gustave Dore and is in the public domain. It can be found here:]

[1] For example, and and and and

[2] These bad actors being identified by those on the so-called left as belonging to the right, and by those on the so-called right as belonging to the left.

[3] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, trans. Lovitt, in Basic Writings ed. Krell, 318.

[4] Trans. Stephen Mitchell. The original German reads as follows:

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,

darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber

sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,

in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug

der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen

der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen

zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz

unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz

und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern

aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,

die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

[5] Heidegger, Question Concerning Technology, in Basic Writings, 321.

[6] Question, 322.

[7] Heidegger, Bremen Lectures, Gestell, trans. Mitchell, 53.

[8] Question, 323.

[9] Question, 325.

[10] Heidegger, Letter on Humanism, in Basic Writings, 234.

[11] Spiegel Interview, 57

[12] Spiegel Interview, 57.

[13] Heidegger, Bremen Lectures, The Thing, 27.

[14] Heidegger, Bremen Lectures, The Thing, 27.

[15] Heidegger, Bremen Lectures, The Thing, 30.

[16] Heidegger, Bremen Lectures, The Thing, 31.

[17] Heidegger, Origin of the Work of Art, in Basic Writings, 167-168.

[18] Heidegger, Bremen Lectures, The Thing, 31.

[19] Heidegger, Bremen Lectures, The Thing, 31.

[20] Heidegger, Bremen Lectures, The Thing, 31. “Die Sterblichen sind die Menschen. Sie heißen die Sterblichen, weil sie sterben können. Sterben heißt: den Tod als Tod vermögen. Nur der Mensch stirbt. Das Tier verendet. Es hat den Tod als Tod weder vor sich noch hinter sich. Der Tod ist der Schrein des Nichts, dessen nämlich , was in aller Hinsicht niemals etwas bloß Seiendes ist, was aber gleich wohl west, sogar als das Geheimnis des Seins selbst. Der Tod birgt als der Schrein des Nichts das Wesende des Seins in sich . Der Tod ist als der Schrein des Nichts das Gebirg des Seins. Die Sterblichen nennen wir jetzt die Sterblichen – nicht, weil ihr irdisches Leben endet, sondern weil sie den Tod als Tod vermögen. Die Sterblichen sind, die sie sind, als die Sterblichen, wesend irn Gebirg des Seins. Sie sind das wesende Verhältnis zum Sein als Sein.”

[21] Heidegger, Being and Time, Introduction §4.

[22]  “But this distantiality which belongs to Being-with, is such that Dasein, as everyday Being-with-one-another, stands in subjection [Botmässigkeit] to Others. It itself is not; its Being has been taken away by the Others. Dasein’s everyday possibilities of Being are for the Others to dispose of as they please…. The ‘who’ is not this one, not that one, not oneself [man selbst], not some people [einige], and not the sum of them all. The ‘who’ is the neuter, the ‘they’ [das Man]…. In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of the ‘they’ is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they [man] take pleasure; we read, see judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness.” (Being and Time, I.4, 164.)

[23] See, Being and Time, Division II, Section I: Dasein’s Possibility of Being-A-Whole, and Being-Towards-Death.

[24] Heidegger, Letter on Humanism, Basic Writings, 236.

[25] Heidegger observes, “For, strictly, it is language that speaks. Man first speaks when, and only when, he responds to language by listening to tis appeal” (Heidegger, “Poetically Man Dwells” in Poetry, Language, Thought, 216).  And again, he claims, “Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man” (“Building, Dwelling, Thinking” in Basic Writings, 348).

[26] For example,

[27] And there are also plenty of additional relations to death in the tradition. For example, when reading some of the classical Hellenistic texts, one can grow weary of all the numerous ways that death can be signified by a chart.

[28] “Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent form opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those that are patently false. So, for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, it will be enough if I find in each of them at least some reason for doubt.” Descartes, Meditations, I. trans. Cottingham in The Collected Philosophical Writings of Descartes Vol. II.

[29] “If I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.” Descartes, Meditations, II.

[30] For an introduction to Husserlian phenomenology see his “Cartesian Meditations” and “Ideas I: Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy.”

[31] Heidegger, Letter on Humanism, Basic Writings, 231.

[32] Chris Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune, 2.

[33] Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology, 138-140.

[34] Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology, 593.

[35] Porphyry, Letter to Anebo, trans. Taylor.

One Reply to “Sein und Zeichen (Being and Sign): Towards a Phenomenological Astrology”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *