The Simile of the Aviary

The retaining of beings for making present, as first encountered in the simile of the wax mass, is further elaborated through the simile of the aviary.

The aviary simile as translated by Martin Heidegger in The Essence of Truth (215)

[Socrates] ‘Well, having and possessing seem different things. If a man buys a cloak and in this sense brings it under his power, but does not wear it, we should certainly say, not that he has it on, but that he possesses it’
[Theaetetus] ‘And rightly’
‘Now see whether it is possible in the same way for someone who possesses knowledge not to have it, in like manner, for instance, to a man who catches wild birds – pigeons or the like – and sets up an aviary at home in which to keep them. Might we assert that in a certain way he always has the birds, because he possesses them?’
‘And yet in another way he does not have any of the birds, but has acquired power over them, since he has brought them under his control within his own enclosure. He can take them and hold them whenever he likes, by catching whichsoever bird he pleases, and letting it go again; and he can do this as often as he likes.’
‘That is true’
‘And again, just as a while ago we contrived some sort of waxen figment in the soul, so now let us make in each soul an aviary stocked with all sorts of birds, some in flocks apart from the rest, others in small groups, and some solitary, flying hither and thither among all the others’
‘Consider it done. What next?’
‘We must assume that when we were children this receptacle was empty, and we must understand that the birds represent the varieties of knowledge. And whatsoever kind of knowledge a person acquires and shuts up within the enclosure, we must say that he has learned or discovered the thing of which this is the knowledge, and that precisely this is knowing’
‘So be it’

Heidegger’s Interpretation

In the soul there is an aviary (peristereon) [lit, pigeon house], or more generally, a container … At the beginning of every individual human Dasein this container is still empty, there are no birds in it, Gradually the aviary becomes filled with birds of various kinds, i.e. we become familiar with beings and store them in the container. What goes into the container is possession. But the captured birds behave in different ways in the aviary. Some separate themselves off in fixed groups, other cluster around in looser groups, still others are flying around anywhere and everywhere.

The birds in the aviary, in their activity, conform to different characteristics of being, what was previously called the excess. The birds in a fixed group show unity. The birds in looser groups speak of changeability. The birds that fly around “anywhere and everywhere” signify that which is common to every being: they exist, each is the same as itself and each is different to the others.

Whoever keeps birds in an aviary ‘has’ them but yet has them not. In other words: besides this having in a container there is another ‘having’, namely when we again catch individual birds within the container, when for a second time we hunt them down and try to hold them in our hands. In straightforward terms, this means that in the sphere of possible making-present we have many and varied beings, and of these we can make-present now this one, now that one, holding it expressly before us; we can also leave the content of the container to itself as it were, whereby we realise that at any time the soul has in itself the capacity of bringing into view what is retained in the sphere of making-present.

We have the aviary and the birds, as possessions left to their own devices, “without expressly conceiving them.” Thus we retain them but they are absent, we do not make them present as beings. The latter is achieved by the action of grasping, literally and metaphorically. The bird as grasped in the simile means a specific being is brought to mind, made present, thus the same thing can be absent and present.

Whoever possesses such an aviary possesses the doves in this cage, in this container, but does so in different ways. First, by sitting in a house, in a room, and having the doves under a roof. In this way, he can possess them and add to his possession. But he can also grasp a dove inside the container. There is the fundamental possibility of taking something out of this domain and having it in a stronger sense, taking on a relationship of Being with it. (Being and Truth, 198)

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