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)

Previous post: The Simile of the Wax Mass

The Simile of the Wax Mass

Assume then, by way of simile, that our souls contain something like a wax mass, sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, sometimes purer, sometimes more impure, sometimes harder, sometimes softer, and sometimes of just the right quality. [Everything that we immediately perceive, and also everything that we take in and comprehend, is imprinted upon it] … This wax mass, we say, is a gift of the mother of the Muses. (210)

Heidegger’s Interpretation
The soul contains a wax mass, into which all experiences are imprinted, its capacity to receive these impressions varies with the individual: “sometimes larger, sometimes smaller…” We can draw upon the impressions contained in this wax mass, in order to hold before ourselves that which is no longer present, or we are no longer with. We have a “connection of being” to what is absent, in the same way that an artist can “visualise and freely form their work in its entire fullness, prior to and without the help of any outline.” i.e. without a body being present. This capacity is the gift of the mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, which belongs to the essence of the soul as a “primordial dowry.” (210)

Heidegger says this gift of Mnemosyne is not recollection but the faculty of mindfulness, the capacity of the soul to make-present that which is not physically there. In making-present that which is absent, we do not orient ourselves towards an inwardly stored image, but outwards towards the thing itself in its full appearance, which we betake ourselves to “without removing ourselves from our factual location.” (212) Since we do not have the thing itself before us from which to draw its eidos, its look, we orient ourselves to its eidolon, its look-alike [also simulacrum] stored in the wax mass inside the soul.

The comportment towards these beings made-present is one of holding; “we hold ourselves before beings by simultaneously holding ourselves to them.” Holding is meant in the same way as holding to someone, not giving up on them, a constant concerned relationship towards. We hold ourselves towards all beings, because not all beings can be bodily present. Yet as we know, our relationship to what we retain can change, we can forget, or the thing we keep-in-mind may itself change so that our knowledge of it becomes distorted.

Further understandings of the faculty of mindfulness are explored in the simile of the aviary, in which the capacity for something to be present and absent is set out.

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What Lies Between

The failure of each of the three perspectives to explain the false view leads to their abandonment, in their stead the phenomenon of the pseudes doxa itself leads the way.

The pseudes doxa is still approached in terms of knowledge, but rather than being thought as something we either know or do not know, what is looked for is what is in the middle of both, which Heidegger calls the “intermediate phenomena” of “coming-to-know.” This coming-to-know is explained through the process of learning; “in the learning process there is always something that one knows and as yet does not know.” (206) Thus, what lies in between knowing and not knowing, coming-to-know, combines the two. This allows new perspectives to be opened up, through which the phenomenon of the distorted view, as it shows itself, can be approached.

Through this new combined perspective doxa is now understood as having two objects (look and view), but at bottom is one thing, the two are combined into one, with a complex unity. Such a phenomenon, that we see two aspects at once, requires a similar dual comportment, a double stance towards the object of doxa, as what is combined. This is approached through the soul.

Rather than a philosophical impossibility, the false view is now understood as a “condition and comportment of man wherein he is somehow related to beings, albeit distortedly.” (208) The phenomenon of the false view is thus intrinsic to our relationship to being, which was shown to belong to the soul. The soul is now revisited, in light of doxa’s combined duality, in a “new double characterisation,” given in the form of two similes.

These similes place us before two sensory images, the first a wax mass and the second an aviary, through which the soul’s capacity to make present what is not before us and its role in allowing us to see what is false are discussed. I shall describe each in turn.

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The Three Perspectives Retracted

The third perspective from which doxa is examined gets closest to solving the phenomenon of false belief by acknowledging doxa’s duality. But the pseudes doxa is then explained in an erroneous manner by ascribing to it a process of substitution, “if one thing is posited instead of the other, at bottom this means that just one thing is posited.” (201) In the end all three perspectives do not suffice as they all lead to the assertion of the impossibility of the distorted view – yet it exists. This means new perspectives are needed, derived from the phenomenon of the distorted view itself.

The claims of all three perspectives are retracted by Socrates. On the face of it a simple move, yet Heidegger claims it means “the entire foundation of previous philosophy becomes unstable.” (204) This is because the principle of the first perspective, “either we have knowledge of something, or we have no knowledge of it,” which underpins the other two perspectives, is founded on the “fundamental truth of western philosophy,” “that what is, is, that the non-existent is not.”

For Heidegger this gives us “an intimation of the power the phenomenon of pseudos (untruth) possesses to disturb and amaze.” He also notes that the overturning of these guiding principles means that rather than conforming the analysis to these principles the analysis must now be conformed to the phenomenon of the pseudes doxa, i.e. what is seen when we have a false view.

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Doxa as Substitution

In the final perspective from which pseudes doxa, the false view, is examined, the confusion of the first perspective is replaced by the proposal that what happens in the false view is a substitution. So the example of someone taking an approaching person to be Socrates, when he is actually Theaetetus, means that Theaetetus is replaced by Socrates. So being is affirmed for each, the interchangeables both exist. The double aspect of doxa, look and view, is maintained. Pseudos becomes what is missed, Socrates instead of Theaetetus. (198)

This appears to have the capacity to settle all previous counter arguments. But two objections are given. The first is that rather than the duality of substitution we see the singular being, one is taken for the other. The second objection to substitution is that if the one becomes the other, the one is the other. This leads to the absurdity of statements such as: “an ox is a horse or that two are one.” (200) Again proving the impossibility of the pseudes doxa.

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