CriticaLink | Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology | Guide to pp. 313-316

"For centuries philosophy has taught that there are four causes":

<IMG src="chalice.gif" width=330 height=225>

Heidegger uses the example of a silver chalice, the kind used in the Christian rite of communion, to illustrate the traditional model of the four causes. He immediately calls into question the adequacy of this philosophical doctrine, and asks what these modes of causality all have in common. What exactly do we mean by "cause," anyway? he asks.

This question leads him to the etymology of the Latin word causa. Throughout his philosophical work, Heidegger frequently turns to a careful examination of how the meaning of words have developed to help support his arguments. Causa, he tells us here, stems from verb meaning "to fall," and is used to designate "that which brings it about that something turns out as a result in such and such a way" (290). Although philosophical tradition traces the doctrine of the four causes back to Aristotle, Heidegger points out that the meaning of the Greek word Aristotle uses is quite different from the later words for "cause" that emphasize effecting. Instead, the Greek word aition carries the sense of "that which is responsible for something else."

Here Heidegger returns to the example of the communion chalice, recasting the example in terms of his new interpretation of the idea of causality. He translates the Latin terms of the earlier version into Greek to reinforce his transformation of the model. Silver is the material [hyle] that is shaped into the form [eidos] of "chaliceness." Both the hyle and the eidos are responsible for the chalice's being a chalice.

The chalice here has been produced in order to be used in a particular kind of activity--the Christian ceremony of communion. Its existence is determined by this context, which literally defines the chalice in the sense that it gives it clear boundaries: it's neither a martini glass nor a coffee cup. This drawing of defining boundaries is telos, and is responsible, along with the material and the form, for the chalice's existence as a chalice.

Heidegger completes his comparison of the traditional model of causality with its Greek source by showing that Aristotle had no such category as the "causa efficiens." Instead of seeing the silversmith as the agent that "effects" the production of the chalice, Aristotle's model would view the careful consideration of the silversmith--the logos, a term derived from apophainesthai, "to reveal"-- as a kind of point of departure for the chalice's coming into being. Rather than mastering the material by wrestling it into a particular form, this second version of our silversmith brings together the various potentialities of silver, the abstraction of "chaliceness," and the context in which the chalice will serve, and through this method allows the chalice to come into being.

Heidegger's recurring name for the chalice, "the sacrificial vessel," is a reference both to Christ's sacrifice and to the way in which the material, the form, the context, and the thought or consideration of the silversmith all "give themselves up" to the existence of the chalice. To give is an important verb for Heidegger. In German, es gibt [literally, "it gives"] means "there is." Giving, in Heidegger's thought, is bound up with Being. If we think of hyle, eidos, telos, and logos as giving to the existence of the chalice, then perhaps the meaning of aition as "that to which something else is indebted" (290) will be more clear.

The silversmith is responsible for the chalice; the chalice is "indebted" to the silversmith: it seems easy enough for us to understand this idea, but Heidegger is concerned that we are going to miss his meaning. To make sure that we follow him, he undertakes a detailed analysis of the ideas of responsibility and indebtedness.

go to next page