For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Heidegger's Topology: Being, Place, World

by Malpas, Jeff (2008)


This groundbreaking inquiry into the centrality of place in Martin Heidegger's thinking offers not only an illuminating reading of Heidegger's thought but a detailed investigation into the way in which the concept of place relates to core philosophical issues. In Heidegger's Topology, Jeff Malpas argues that an engagement with place, explicit in Heidegger's later work, informs Heidegger's thought as a whole. What guides Heidegger's thinking, Malpas writes, is a conception of philosophy's starting point: our finding ourselves already "there," situated in the world, in "place". Heidegger's concepts of being and place, he argues, are inextricably bound together. Malpas follows the development of Heidegger's topology through three stages: the early period of the 1910s and 1920s, through Being and Time, centered on the "meaning of being"; the middle period of the 1930s into the 1940s, centered on the "truth of being"; and the late period from the mid-1940s on, when the "place of being" comes to the fore. (Malpas also challenges the widely repeated arguments that link Heidegger's notions of place and belonging to his entanglement with Nazism.) The significance of Heidegger as a thinker of place, Malpas claims, lies not only in Heidegger's own investigations but also in the way that spatial and topographic thinking has flowed from Heidegger's work into that of other key thinkers of the past 60 years.

Key Passage

The appearance of ‘the worker’ as the name for the ‘human fulfilment of the being of beings’ is indicative of the way in which human being is now almost entirely taken up in terms of the capacity for ‘production’ (and therefore also, one might say, for ‘consumption’) – in terms of what can also be understood as a form of ‘materialism’, although it is a materialism understood as the metaphysical determination ‘according to which every being appears as the material of labor’ and so, says Heidegger, ‘[t]he essence of materialism is concealed in the essence of technology’.684 ‘Labour’ or ‘work’ can, of course, be taken to be a characteristic feature of human existence – something apparent in the way human dwelling always occurs through what Heidegger calls ‘building’ (which he characterizes in ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ in terms of a mode of ‘productive activity’685). In this respect, it may be supposed, in keeping with the comments from Heidegger quoted here, that the technological is continuous with the work-oriented character of human being.686 Yet the domain of the technological is not the domain of mere ‘work’ nor is the technological identical with productive activity as such. The technological is an ordering of things that allows things to appear such that they can be taken up into the framework of production, calculation, transformation, consumption. Within this ordering, work takes on the form of ‘production-consumption’ – the dominance of the ‘worker’ is the dominance of this mode of work as the mode of human work, and, also, of human being. In this respect, when understood in relation to work, Heidegger’s account of technology can be said to direct attention to a shift in the character of work that is more explicitly taken up, though in different terms, by Hannah Arendt. Within the modern world, Arendt argues, ‘work’, which she takes to be the mode of production geared to the making of enduring things for further use (a mode of production that might be taken to overlap with Heidegger’s ‘building’), has been transformed into ‘labour’, which Arendt views as the mode of production that generates things for immediate consumption (‘using up’).687 All activities of ‘work’, all activities of production, thereby appear solely in terms of the manufacture of commodities for consumption. Even the individual worker is taken up into this cycle of production and consumption, and so even the worker is assimilated to something to be consumed, to be ‘used up’ – in the terms of the contemporary ‘efficiency-driven’ workplace, this means as something that must be flexible and adjustable to meet the demands of business and ‘the market’. Moreover, as the worker is transformed into something consumable, so does the consumer take on the character of producer: the act of consumption is itself productive – thus, economic activity is itself measured, in part, by consumer spending, and consumption becomes a mode of productive labour – while consumption is itself something produced by means of advertising and other ‘promotional’ activity. Albert Borgmann points out, independently of Arendt’s analysis, that one of the effects of technology in everyday life is not only a transformation of things into commodities, but a conceptualization of human life itself around notions of desire and the satisfaction of desire through consumption688 – life, as one recent columnist has it, becomes ‘shopping’689 – moreover, the concepts of ‘desire’ and ‘satisfaction’ that appear here are themselves framed in terms of the market, the customer, the ‘end-user’, while they also become commodities to be produced, sold, acquired. (p.188)


Heidegger, Being, Skill, Education, Place


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