Wanda Torres Gregory: Speaking of Silence in Heidegger

Speaking of Silence in Heidegger Couverture du livre Speaking of Silence in Heidegger
Wanda Torres Gregory
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
ebook $45.00 Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Christopher Braddock (Auckland University of Technology)

Wanda Torres Gregory’s latest book, entitled Speaking of Silence in Heidegger, explores the conceptual links and deep undercurrents at work in Martin Heidegger’s often unforthcoming thinking on silence. In typical chronological fashion (as with her previous book Heidegger’s Path to Language) she charts the course of Heidegger’s thoughts on silence, from Being and Time in the period of 1927–29, to the collection of essays in the 1950s On the Way to Language, and ending in Chapter 9 with critical conclusions about Heidegger’s thinking on silence from the 1950s onward. On this basis, Torres Gregory critically assesses Heidegger’s later ideas on silence in terms of “autonomous forces that define our essence as the beings who speak in word-sounds” (as described on her homepage for Simmons University where she is Professor of Philosophy).

This book plays an important role in prioritising non-visual phenomena. Both Don Idhe and Lisbeth Lipari have pointed to a visualist habit in phenomenology as well as western epistemologies in general. Idhe writes in Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound that there is a sense of vision that “pervades the recovery of the Greek sense of physis by Heidegger [where] ‘lighting,’ ‘clearing,’ ‘shining,’ ‘showing,’ are all revels in light imagery” (2007: 21). In this context, Idhe explores how auditory phenomena might be studied in a phenomenology of sound and listening that also gives way to “the enigma… of the horizon of silence” (2007: 23). Torres Gregory’s Speaking of Silence in Heidegger contributes richly to this genealogy of phenomenological scholarship that gives precedence to non-visual phenomena and their enigmatic relationship to hearing, listening and silence.

As I read Speaking of Silence in Heidegger, I was stimulated to question, ponder, and reason carefully about the great problem of silence. The contents page enticed me to read with chapter headings such as: Toward the Essence of Silence (Chapter 2); Quiet Musings in the Project toward the Stillness (Chapter 7); and The Soundless Peal of the Stillness (Chapter 8). I was immediately drawn into a sense of mystery and a longing to know more about essence, poetics, stillness of silence and its relationships to language. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in silence and the philosophy of language.

Reading the Introduction, titled “On the Way to Silence,” a wordplay on Heidegger’s “On the Way to Language,” we know that Torres Gregory is a good teacher (she is a recipient of the Simmons University Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching). She can say complex things relatively simply and map out her terrain with ease. The Introduction charts the thesis of the book well, pinpointing the author’s main claims, giving us a background to Heidegger’s ideas of silence in its links with truth and language as well as a comprehensive summary of chapters to follow.

A main focus of the book is the importance Heidegger places on the following terms: being silent (Geschweigen), keeping silent (Schweigen), hearkening (Horchen), and reticence (Verschwiegenheit) (Torres Gregory, 2021: xiii). Implicated in this theme, Torres Gregory’s interpretation focuses on what Heidegger says and doesn’t say (or hints at) concerning silence. “I make the effort to let him speak and intimate in his own words,” she writes (xiii). In this respect, Torres Gregory’s methodology follows similar enigmatic patterns to the concept of silence itself. Here, her folding of methodology and content is a powerful and original aspect of her writing. While some readers might find this overly speculative, this reader found it a productive mode of thinking in its own right, enabling an expansion of Heidegger’s ideas. However, given Heidegger’s emphasis on human silence as relating to a refraining from speaking about certain things or withholding certain words, his public silence concerning the Holocaust will come to mind for many readers. Torres Gregory does not shy away from this challenge, but the issue is by no means centre-stage in the discussion.

The Introduction identifies three distinct schematic forms of silence in the works of Heidegger: human silence which applies to speaking in word-sounds that can occur when we refrain from speaking, withhold words or when we are at a loss for words (xv); primordial silence, which is “deeper than human silence in that it pertains to being/beyng and to language in its being” and applies to the “essence of language as the soundless saying that shows or to the word as the silent voice or clearing of being/beyng”; and finally, primeval silence which is the “deepest silence that determines all silences, including the primordial silence of the word and, ultimately, the human silence” and “[p]ertains to the stillness and to the originary concealedness of being/beyng” (xv). Torres Gregory further explores three different levels at which silence occurs in language as speech: linguistic, pre-linguistic and proto-linguistic which move from language in word-sounds, the word as belonging to being/beyng, and the essence of language “as the soundless saying that shows or the word as the clearing” (xvi). Torres Gregory argues that this proto-linguistic level includes the stillness and relates to forms of primeval silence. This continues the work of scholars such as Alexander Garcia Düttmann in The Gift of Language who in asking “What does it mean to experience silence as the essence of language and as the completely condensed word (das ganz gesammelte Wort)?” answers via Rosenzweig, that the silence experienced is “unlike the muteness of the protocosmos (Vorwelt), which had no words yet” (2000: 23). Silence, Düttmann continues with reference to Heidegger, “marks the path which leads from proto-cosmic or pre-worldly mutism to trans-worldly silence” in which silence “no longer has any need of the word… is more essential than the word, which is the word as such” (2000: 24).

With reference to Being and Time, Chapter 1 articulates being-in-the-world through words (language) as significations, verbalising Da-sein’s mood and understanding. However, talking and listening are not necessarily characteristic of all discourse. Discourse has the possibility of silence when it is not fully vocalised; by not speaking about something, for example. Thus, hidden interpretations can remain silent and this silence is already part of vocalised discourse (Torres Gregory, 2021: 3). Moreover, silence can occur across authentic and inauthentic modalities. For example, idle talk and listening to idle talk (gossiping), Torres Gregory claims, imposes silence about beings talked about “by treating them as something that we already understand and have no need to inquire into any further” (4).

Levels of silence in language become even more complex as Torres Gregory follows Heidegger’s argument that silence can also occur in regard to the self in everyday being-in-the world. While the “authentic self has taken hold of and is its own self,” Da-sein’s everyday way of being-in-the-world involves covering itself up which is the inauthentic they–self (4). So, idle talk of the ‘they’ has potential to sever Da-sein from authentically relating to itself; it “drowns out the call of conscience through loud and incessant chatter and hearing all round” (8). The ‘they’ can talk loudly and endlessly provoked by its curiosities, and idle talk can silence authentic experiences. It can even cover up its own failure to hear the call of conscience (4). Furthermore, this chapter explains well the possibility that keeping silence is based on Heidegger’s notion of “having ‘something to say,’ which involves an ‘authentic and rich’ self-disclosedness and thereby can contribute to an authentic uncovering with others” (5). In this sense, authentically keeping silent in dialogue with others can mean silencing idle talk, counter-discourse and all linguistic/verbal language, which equates to a keeping silent and hearkening (8). But the “deepest silence lies within Da-sein, in what Heidegger refers to as ‘the stillness of itself’ and identifies as that to which it is ‘called back’ and ‘called back as something that is to become still’” (7).

Following Heidegger’s 1933–34 winter course “On the Essence of Truth,” Chapter 2 emphasises that language is the necessary medium of human existence and that the “ability to keep silent is the origin and ground of language” (19). Torres Gregory traces moments of Heidegger’s own keeping silence and reticence, thus mapping out a philosophical and pedagogical method in Heidegger that reflects the topic itself. This includes his ability to stay on the surface and provide minimal necessary clarification as if part of keeping silent and reticence. In this context, problems are described such that: “If we talk about ‘keeping silent,’ then it seems that we know nothing about it. If we do not talk about it, then we may end up mystifying it” (20). In turning to another problem, that animals cannot speak, questions are asked about whether “the ability to talk [is] the precondition for the ability to be silent” (20). Here, Heidegger argues that authentically keeping silent relates to the possibility of speaking and alludes to “what one has to say, one has and keeps to oneself” (21). It is at these junctions that Torres Gregory articulately claims an essential relationship between silence, truth and language in Da-sein’s being (21). Through a further reading of Heidegger’s 1934 summer course, Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language, Torres Gregory sets up subsequent directions for future chapters as Heidegger poses preliminary questions concerning language: “Is language only then, when it is spoken? Is it not, when one is silent?” and “Does it cease to be, if one is silent?” (26).

In Chapter 3, Torres Gregory shows how Heidegger develops a distinction between idle talk and keeping silent through Hölderlin’s poetry, helping him to define primordial silence as the origin of language, as well as language as the originary site of the unconcealedness of beyng, which pertains to what Torres Gregory identifies as primeval silence (31). The disclosive powers of poetry ‘thrusts’ us out of everydayness (32). Torres Gregory argues that Heidegger’s interpretation of Hölderlin’s poetic verse “Since we are a dialogue,” allows him to revisit the notion of  “talking-with-one-another” as a way of “being-in-the-world” as an event or happening determined by language (33). Importantly, this image of “humans as a dialogue” or “the dialogue that we are” includes an ability to keep silent as the authentic form of silence (34). Thus, an ability to speak is unified with an ability to keep silent (34). In this context, Torres Gregory notes that, for Heidegger, a poetic telling (which Hölderlin’s poetry exemplifies) or a philosophical lecture (where the most significant is kept silent or unsaid) are the authentic models of keeping silent, and also therefore of the possibility of saying and talking (34). In contrast, idle talk is incapable of keeping silent. Quoting from Heidegger’s Hölderlin’s Hymns “Germania” and “The Rhein,” Torres Gregory notes: “It is thereby a way of talking everything to death to which we become enslaved. Thus, he admonishes that ‘one cannot simply ramble on,’ if one is ‘to simultaneously preserve in silence what is essential to one’s saying’” (35). This important chapter finishes with a comparison between keeping silent and forms of hearing. Inauthentic mortals in their idle talk flee from hearing and have a “horror of silence” (38). So, a poetic or genuinely philosophical hearing involves “a keeping silent as well as an anticipatory readiness” (37). Here, Torres Gregory furthers the scholarship of Lisbeth Lipari who introduced the concept of ‘interlistening’ to describe how “listening is itself a form of speaking that resonates with echoes of everything heard, thought, said, and read,” while referencing Heidegger’s claim in Poetry, Language, Thought that “every word of mortal speech speaks out of such a listening, and as such a listening. Mortals speak insofar as they listen” (2014: 512).

Chapter 4 discusses Heidegger’s private manuscript from 1936 to 1938, Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) where he initiates a transition from a metaphysics of objective presence to the thinking of the truth of beyng in the ‘appropriating event’ or Ereignis (Torres Gregory, 2021: xix, 41). Torres Gregory discusses the different forms of silence that unfold in the appropriating event. For Heidegger, thinking takes the form of a “thoughtful speaking” (41) and Torres Gregory pursues the thoughtful speaking of sigetics (to keep or to be silent) who “bears silence and is reticent in its co-respondence with the primordial silence of the word and the primeval silence of beyng” (xix-xx). As with other chapters in this book, one of Torres Gregory’s original contributions is to acknowledge Heidegger’s own tendency towards sigetics, forcing her to interpret what he intimates about the “deeper silences of beyng and the word when he identifies silence as the ground and origin of language in its essence” (xx). While exploring attitudes of restraint, shock, and diffidence, Torres Gregory argues that stillness, as the ability to hear beyng, involves the ability to be silent (43).

Chapter 5 analyses Heidegger’s 1939 graduate seminar, On the Essence of Language. The Metaphysics of Language and the Essencing of the Word Concerning Herder’s Treatise On the Origin of Language. Torres Gregory first establishes Heidegger’s resistance to Herder’s metaphysics of language where the word is reduced, for example, to signification as representation and objectification associated with ‘mark-sign’ and ‘sign-production’ (56). Herder’s failure to differentiate between human and animal (in a sounding of sensations) urges Heidegger to emphasise how the word has or takes us, rather than it being a communication device that the human has (58). In this context, Heidegger builds on Herder’s thinking on the ear as “the first teacher of language” to include “what is unsaid” (58). Torres Gregory has extremely valuable insights into Heidegger’s thinking as she notes that Herder misunderstands silence as an absence of noise rather than a more essential silence (59). For Heidegger hearing is the “hearkening that pertains to Da-sein’s silencing” (59). Again, Torres Gregory extracts extended (often reticent) meanings from Heidegger’s thinking, arriving at claims that the word is silent in a primordial sense, as it harbors or silently discloses beyng it is unconcealedness, (59) resulting in a claim that the silence of the word is the origin of language (60-1).

Chapter 6 explores the 1944 summer seminar “Logic: Heraclitus’s Doctrine of the Logos”. Torres Gregory aligns silence with the unsaid, and the unsayable in Heraclitus, where Heidegger identifies ‘the true’ with ‘the unsaid’ (68). And in future chapters this will develop, for Torres Gregory, as “the essence of language as the peal of the stillness” (68). Here, hearkening to the word, or Logos, involves listening to the silent address of being, rather than listening to the chatter of human speech (69). Such attentive listening to the Logos is only possible, Torres Gregory argues, through Heidegger’s “thoughtful and poetic saying,” which is marked by silences. In this context, silence draws limits on what can be said. Silence or quiescence (the state of being temporarily quiet) is interpreted by Torres Gregory in its close association with concealedness (74). Word-sounds originate in quiescence and permeate speech as a hearkening and reticence of thoughtful and poetic sayings (71). In this regard, Torres Gregory draws attention to Heidegger’s term ‘fore-word’ and its relationship to quiescence as a stillness that is a deep and primeval silence (72). Thus, verbal word-sounds that occur in speech are grounded in soundlessness which is grounded in the stillness. Importantly, Torres Gregory highlights Heidegger’s differentiation between hearkening and listening as acoustic perception, noting that hearkening is “originary listening” that enables the hearing of sounds. As Torres Gregory writes: “the tones of the harp (to use one of [Heidegger’s] own examples), is thus based ultimately on our openness to the soundless and inaudible voice of being” (75).

Chapter 7 discusses two sections of Heidegger’s On the Essence of Language and On the Question Concerning Art produced just after 1939. Torres Gregory writes: “Heidegger sketches out his thoughts on silence, particularly in its primeval relation to beyng itself in the appropriating-event and as the origin of the essence of language” (79). With typical care, Torres Gregory discusses the translation of three key words: Verschweigen, Schweigen and Erschweigen which correspond to keeping secret in relation to the sayable, keeping silent in relation to the unsayable, and silencing in relation to the unsaid as such (79, 83). She reiterates the positive dimension that Heidegger lends silence as a positive force. She writes: “Keeping secret can be a way of sheltering what is sayable. Being silent can arise from our ability to leave the unsayable in its unsayability. As for our silencing, it inherently involves the positive acts of preserving and conserving saying with its ground in unsaidness” (83). Torres Gregory is at pains to show how these notions of ‘soundlessness’ or ‘non-sonorousness’ in Heidegger’s vocabulary are not negative concepts; not a lack, but a fullness from which sounds emerge, predicated on a stillness, as primeval silence (82). Because chapters 1 to 8 form a complex analysis of Heidegger’s thinking, with any criticism reserved for the final chapter, we are left at points in this book wondering how these philosophical concepts of language and silence might relate to different genders and cultures. For many women and/or indigenous peoples, silencing inherently involves negative acts of being silenced or being made to keep secrets as forms of disempowerment. As Torres Gregory briefly mentions in her concluding Chapter 9, this raises questions about how Heidegger’s thinking excludes bodies that differ.

Chapter 8 discusses the ways in which the collection of essays On the Way to Language and the idea of the ‘peal of the stillness’ unfolds as Heidegger ponders the relations between language and silence (95). Torres Gregory reiterates her three main foci on silence from the previous chapters (human hearkening and reticence, the primordial silencing of the word, and the stillness of primeval silence) (96) in relation to Ereignis, a term that has been translated diversely as ‘event,’ ‘appropriation’ or ‘appropriating event’. While Heidegger constantly refers to the disclosive power and necessity of language in its essence “as the appropriative speaking, saying, showing, letting-appear, clearing, and calling” (98), Torres Gregory notes his insistence that it is only through ‘authentic’ listening (in the manner of thinking and poetry) that humans have the ability to speak (100). In other words, all authentic saying must be attuned to restraint. Quoting Heidegger, she writes: “The reticence and reserve of poets and thinkers in their responding is thus appropriated by the peal of the stillness: ‘Every authentic hearing holds back with its own saying. For hearing keeps to itself in the listening by which it remains appropriated to the peal of the stillness. All responding is attuned to this restraint that reserves itself’” (102). And this chapter ends with a warning that language can only speak in relation to how the appropriating event reveals itself or withdraws. If this corresponds to our ability to quietly listen, Torres Gregory emphasises the significance of stillness within the “dangers that challenge-forth in the noisy and frenzied age of the ‘language-machine’” (103).

One problem with Speaking of Silence in Heidegger is a lack of contextualisation of the literature on silence. Torres Gregory’s book is definitely a specialist book on Heidegger rather than an analysis of the recent history of scholarship on silence in relationship to Heidegger’s thinking. For example, key texts on silence are relegated to the footnotes (albeit with brief analysis) and never appear in the discussion of the main text. These include Max Picard’s The World of Silence (1948), Bernard Dauenhauer’s Silence: The Phenomenon and its Ontological Significance (1980), Luce Irigaray’s “To Conceive Silence” (2001), Don Idhe’s Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Silence (2007), and Niall Keane’s “The Silence of the Origin” (2013). As a reader, I would have benefited from further incorporation of these texts into the discussion. This would have enabled Torres Gregory’s book to be a more significant contribution to the overall scholarship on silence. But, make no mistake, her book is a very significant contribution to Heideggerian scholarship and the notion of silence. It should also be pointed out that, apart from one footnote to Dauenhauer in Chapter 2, all these key texts on silence just mentioned appear in the footnotes for Chapter 9.

This attests to the importance of Chapter 9 in the overall argument of the book. In this concluding chapter, Torres Gregory expands the significance of her research in three different ways. Firstly, she questions whether the only way to silence and silencing experiences is through sonorous speech and asks how various non-linguistic achievements and co-responses to and with silence such as music might operate. In this vein, she questions Heidegger’s narrow focus on poetry and philosophical thinking as the only authentic models of keeping silent and also therefore of the possibility of saying and talking. Here, Torres Gregory explores Heidegger’s failure to incorporate the lived body in his philosophical concepts of language and silence, including the “gender neutrality of Da-sein, the homogeneity of the Volk as a ‘We,’ and the one world of the Mitdasein (being-there-with)” as ideas that exclude bodies that differ (113). Torres Gregory does not shy away from Heidegger’s antisemitism and the silencing of bodies that suffer oppression and extermination (114). Secondly, she argues that Heidegger “leaves open the possibility of a mysticism that is not ensnared in metaphysics” (115) in both content and his repetitive incantatory methods of writing. Thirdly, Torres Gregory critiques Heidegger’s emphasis on language with respect to animals who are rendered languageless and therefore silenceless. In this section, her critique that sheds light on contemporary dilemmas, such as our lack of relationship to the earth, is all too brief and could be the focus of another book: “Perhaps we would be better at letting the earth be the earth, if we tried to transpose ourselves into the animal’s intrinsically meaningful experiences, including that of its own extreme possibility” she writes (120).

Chapter 9, and this whole book, highlights the challenges faced in accommodating Heidegger’s thinking for our current times. For example, quantum physicist and philosopher Karen Barad questions the animate/inanimate dualism that places inorganic entities such as rocks, molecules and particles “on the other side of death, of the side of those who are denied even the ability to die” in her 2012 interview for Women, Gender & Research (Juelskjær et al, 21). And from a related but different perspective, Donna Haraway’s ideas of ‘companion species’ in her 2003 book The companion species manifesto: dogs, people, and significant otherness, argues for emergent ‘naturecultures’ in dog-human worlds, embracing linguistic ‘metaplasm’ as a way of avoiding human/nonhuman dualisms in language. These approaches lie in stark contrast to Heidegger’s insistence in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics that “The stone in its absorption ‘does not even have the possibility of dying,’ because ‘it is never alive’” (Torres Gregory, 2021: 120). And in contrast to Heidegger’s determination (again, as quoted by Torres Gregory) that animals, who do not possess human sonorous speech, “cannot die in the sense in which dying is ascribed to humans, but can only come to an end” (120). Barad and Haraway are the kinds of scholars that many of our postgraduate students are referencing as they embrace more-than-human modalities in the crisis of the Anthropocene. If Heideggerian scholarship wants to remain relevant, it needs to urgently critique and explore different approaches to Heidegger’s anthropocentrism.

Finally, in less than one page, this book addresses how Heidegger’s prophecies concerning gigantism and machination have a bearing on our current situation. Quoting Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event), Torres Gregory writes: “At issue is whether the human being will be ‘masterful enough’ for the ‘transition to the renewal of the world out of the saving of the earth’” (121). And in the last paragraph, we glimpse the promise of what ‘releasement’ (Gelassenheit) toward things might hold for our times; a concept that Hans Ruin explores as a ‘mystical’ comportment of Heidegger’s writing as a heightened openness and awareness in relationship to the work of Meister Eckhart. Given the proximity of thinking about silence and mysticism, I was hopeful that this book might have dedicated more words to the striking relations thrown up through Torres Gregory’s exploration of being silent, keeping silent, hearkening, and reticence. For example, the discussion in Chapter 1 concerning the authentic and inauthentic self relates in a powerful way to spiritual/mystical traditions that address the heedless and worldly desires of the ego as it muzzles an authentic relationship with the divine essence. This is not far removed from Torres Gregory’s discussion relating to Da-sein’s everyday way of being-in-the-world that covers itself up (the inauthentic they–self) and where internal idle talk of the they distracts Da-sein from authentically relating to itself (4). Torres Gregory’s claim that publicness and idle talk characterise an inauthentic silence—as well as the hearkening to the silent call of conscience involving the possibility of authentically keeping silent and reticent—resonates deeply with mystical traditions in their quest to quieten the ego in favour of compassion and spiritual forms of love towards the self and the world/earth. How would ‘releasement’ operate as an openness to the truth of Being? This is an example of how Speaking of Silence in Heidegger might have made more productive links within its own structure and towards broader fields of literature, especially pertaining to silence and mysticism.

Torres Gregory’s Speaking of Silence in Heidegger makes a profound and timely contribution to thinking about silence and its essential relationship to language. It guides us through complex registers of silence including forms of hearkening and reticence as a listening that is deeply attentive to the unsaid and the unsayable. It gives timely warning vis-à-vis the idle talk of the world and our own internal idle talk, reiterating that saying must be attuned to restraint or our ability to quietly listen. Furthermore, a deeper silence is a ‘calling back’ and lies within Da-sein as ‘the stillness of itself’. Moreover, our capacity for ‘the dialogue that we are’ to emerge in community depends on our capacity for attentive stillness within the dangerous noise of the ‘language-machine’.


Düttmann Alexander García. 2000. The Gift of Language: Memory and Promise in Adorno, Benjamin, Heidegger, and Rosenzweig. Translated by Arline Lyons. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Haraway, Donna. 2003. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Ihde, Don. 2007. Listening and Voice Phenomenologies of Sound. 2nd ed. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Juelskjær, Malou, Nete Schwennesen, and Karen Barad. 2012. “Intra-active Entanglements – An Interview with Karen Barad.” Kvinder, Køn & Forskning NR (Women, Gender & Research) 1-2: 10-23.

Lipari, Lisbeth. 2014. “On Interlistening and the Idea of Dialogue.” Theory & Psychology 24, no. 4: 504–23. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354314540765.

Ruin, Hans. 2019. “The Inversion of Mysticism—Gelassenheit and the Secret of the Open in Heidegger.” Religions 10, no. 15: https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10010015.

Torres Gregory, Wanda. 2021. Speaking of Silence in Heidegger. London, UK: Lexington Books.

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