Letting It Be : Heidegger, Leisure and Wilderness.


William T. Borrie

School of Forestry, University of Montana


Draft of paper for presentation at 1995 NRPA Leisure Research Symposium Topic Area 8 : Leisure Research and the Humanities.


The purpose of this study was to examine the work of Martin Heidegger and its applicability to the study of the leisure experience, particularly the wilderness experience. Many of the themes of leisure, and of wilderness, can be found systematically and logically expounded in Heidegger`s work. His ideas can provide a sound philosophical foundation on which to base further investigations. Indeed, Heidegger`s work may offer new directions for thought on the leisure experience, and its role in society.

The primary focus of Heidegger`s writing is on the question of Being, the totality of existence in this world. In the introduction to his most famous volume, Being & Time, Heidegger writes that, `Being is always the Being of a being`. Human existence, or Dasein, is always in the context of other things. As he suggests, `All being is in Being. To put it more pointedly, being is Being`.

In particular, Heidegger emphasizes the interdependency and inter-relationship of the things, beings, that make up our existence. Put simply, an authentic existence is one in which other beings are allowed to fully manifest themselves. Heidegger argues that individuals cannot fully develop, or understand themselves and their world, without allowing the `presencing` of other things. It is not that everything is a product of human consciousness, but rather that natural beings are disclosed through the window of human existence (Zimmerman, 1983). Human events join together the `dance of the fourfold,` a Heideggerean term for the inter-relationship between self, other creatures, divinities, and the environment. Heidegger says in Logos, `It is proper to every gathering that the gatherers assemble to coordinate their efforts to the sheltering; only when they have gathered together with that end in view do they begin to gather`.

  • Martin Heidegger`s background

Heidegger will be remembered as one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century. His work provides an historical link between many nineteenth century Continental philosophers such as Husserl, Kirkegaard, and Nietzsche, and modern thinkers such as Satre, Derrida, Foucault, and Habermas. There are some authors who see Heidegger as a seminal figure in the `hermeneutic turn` of the social sciences that has led to various postmodern approaches (Guignon, 1993; Rosenau, 1992). Unfortunately, the exposure to Heidegger`s ideas has also resulted from the controversy of his involvement with the Nazis. The connection between his philosophy and his political ideology is not clear.

Heidegger was part of a movement away from the dominant dualistic tradition of philosophy that can be traced back to Plato and Descartes. Rather than the clear separation of mind and matter, Heidegger saw reality as being closely tied to unity of experience. He views objects and things as neither static nor essential. Rather Heidegger believes other things find expression through the events of human existence.

In this fashion, Heidegger exhibits the influence of phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, with whom he studied. However, Heidegger went on to question the phenomenological assumption that every object is purely the result of an act of consciousness. Although he agreed that human understanding is the only entrance to the nature of the world, he questioned whether objects of consciousness only become objects when in consciousness. Instead he would lead the way to a view of reality that centered on the notion of emergence-into-presence. Humans provide the space in which other beings, including objects, find expression. And humans find themselves `thrown` into a situation that already reflects a cultural and historical context of the way things are considered to be (Guignon, 1993). Being is, therefore, nothing more than a life-course of interaction with the world, jointly defined. Heidegger held the belief that, `there is a predestinate unity in the universe and the human vocation entails finding our way back to it.` (Grange, 1985, p358). According to Guignon (1993), Heidegger`s criticism of the artificiality of the categories of mind and matter would influence and direct the ideas of phenomenology (through the work of Merleau-Ponty), existentialism (Satre), and hermeneutics (Gadamer and Ricoeur).

  • Heideggers notion of reality
  • Being in the world

Heidegger starts from the assumption that humans are inseparable from their world. That is, the essence of human existence is inseparable from the surrounding social, natural, and divine world. As Gray (1957, p. 200) describes, `man`s reality must be discovered in the world and the world belongs to his reality.` All that we can be, think or experience is situated within that world (Haar, 1993). Gray (1957) goes on to say that Heidegger believed that: The ontological reality of the non-human world cannot appear through the manipulations of man. But things will not appear as things, he hastens to add, `without the alertness of mortals.` In other words, human beings form an integral part of reality, a necessary part of the whole. (p. 204) Humans are never isolated subjects, according to Heidegger, rather their very essence is constituted by their world (Frede, 1993).

The concept of Being (always capitalized) is central to Heidegger`s view of reality. Being is allowing the self-revealing or self-manifesting of other beings (Zimmerman, 1983). As Guignon (1993, p63) describes, `Being comes to be thought of as a temporal event, a `movement into presence` inseparable from the understanding of being embodied in Dasein`s forms of life. It is the event (Ereignis) of disclosedness in which entities come to be appropriated into intelligibility.` (Dasein is a German expression (lit: being there) used by Heideggerean scholars, and by Heidegger himself, to refer to human existence.)

An authentic existence therefore entails the fundamental task of letting things be. According to Zimmerman (1986), `For Heidegger, for something `to be` means for it to be revealed, uncovered, made manifest, ... and authenticity means to be most appropriately what one already is` (p. xxiv). Thus the natural reality for human existence is to allow things to be themselves without human interference, the natural way of things. (This notion is deliberately self-defining). Nature is considered a self-gathering event of manifestation (Zimmerman, 1993a). The ego, or self, is eclipsed by the experience, and the participatory role of making room for other beings to express their natures. As Heidegger puts it, `others are encountered environmentally` (Cave, 1982, p253). `Dasein ist Mitsein`, says Heidegger; to be involved in the world is to be with others (Friedman, 1988).

  • Care, unity and the dance of the fourfold

An authentic being actively works to create room for new creative possibilities of expression. This way of being-in-the-world consists of manifesting care, interest, and concern. These are means of truly understanding what other beings are, and allowing them to be just that (Westra, 1985, 1994). Gray (1957) explains that, `mortals dwell properly when they learn to protect the earth, not to exploit or conquer or subordinate. They dwell as they ought when they `receive the sky as sky`` (p. 203). Dwelling authentically is an act of tending and attending, to cherish and care for the things surrounding us.

`Heidegger emphasized the practical dimension of human existence by defining the very being of Dasein as `care.` To be human means to be concerned about things and to be solicitous towards other people`, according to Zimmerman (1993, p. 247). We care for other beings not for any extrinsic good, but rather as a sense of identification or oneness with all things. Our relationship with the world is therefore concernful and participatory rather than perceptual and objectified. This stance is believed to be a profound change in our relationship to the planet, as Haar (1993) explains : The absence of dwelling (or homelessness : Heimatlosigkeit) becomes a world destiny. This sort of rootlessness is more profound than any purely sociological or political phenomenon. When the world is reduced to a network of interchangeable connections, there are truly no more subjects who face objects but only gigantic circulations of energy, products, information ,and consumption. Evermore removed, everless inserted in a situation or a determinate site, technological man more and more finds himself decontextualized, simultaneously integrated and dispersed. The sense of the near and the distant becomes blurred. The oblivion of the Earth is the oblivion of the originally local and regional character of thinking and action. (p.5)

The Heideggerean notions of Being and care (Sorge) are tightly interrelated. One cares for another being (object or creature) not for the sake of the individual ego, but for the sake of a larger notion of existence (Guignon, 1993). The care of one individual being is caring for the sum total of Being, simply for the sake of caring for the whole. This is the way to not only understand the true essence of Being, but also the true oneness. It is from the whole of existence that all the things within the world receive their meaning (Haar, 1993). As Cave (1982) suggests that: Dasein is in the world primordially through its existential concern or involvement with the world ... Dasein is, for the most part, absorbed in the world in definite modes of concern: it has to do with something, produces something, attends to something, looks after something, makes use of something and so forth. (p. 252) Our relationship with the world is active and concernful rather than perceptual and objectified.

This sense of unity with the world is tightly tied to Heidegger`s later notion of the fourfold. When we speak of dwelling authentically, we speak of specific places in time and space where a gathering together of the fourfold occurs (Platt, 1985). Zimmerman (1992) say that, `Heidegger claimed that humanity`s highest possibility is not to dominate entities, but to care for them, to let them be what they are, to join with things in the dance of the `fourfold` of earth and sky, gods and mortals` (p. 250). However, when we speak of one of the four we must bear in mind the simple oneness of the four, thus we necessarily think of the other three that come along with it (Platt, 1985). Each thing suggests all of the realities, fitting and binding them together into a oneness, a unity, thus making them available to one another (Gray, 1957).

An example of this notion of oneness will help explain. Westra (1985) writes, If we stand on the seashore, and see a wave coming in, driven up to the sand by the tide, and then receding, we have seen one entity, one wave. But we cannot cut it off from the totality of the sea, or from the earth that bounds it, the forces that move it, or the conditions of the sky at the time. And I am not a separate entity (a spectator), standing over and against it. I am part of that Being, too. To understand this is to do more than simply pass through the earth. It means to dwell upon it, which entails the deep awareness of all that participates in the oneness of time and place. (p. 348) The construction of meaning, the significance of existence, requires the joining of the fourfold. Without consideration of each of the four we do not have full understanding of what it means to Be. This is similar to the Buddhist notion of nothingness or emptiness. When one gives up the ego body of self, one creates the openness in which to identify and join with all things (Zimmerman, 1993a).

  • Emotion, language and culture

According to Grange (1985, p. 361), `mood for Heidegger is the felt sense of our interaction with the environment.` Feelings are our acknowledgment of the quality of our oneness with the environment. Emotions provide information about where we are, and how we are doing, in connection with the earth. Perhaps this is why wilderness experiences can be described as so intense. Heidegger sees feelings as being our authentic attachment to the world, they are the natural outcome of being one with the world (Grange, 1985). Feelings are indicative of active engagement, of praxis. That is, our feelings are our primary access to the world (Folz, 1984).

Language is another example of the actions that Dasein can take to open up our world and allow beings to play, according to Heidegger (Zimmerman, 1983). Poetic, artistic and creative works provide a context in which the fourfold can unite. For example, Zimmerman (1983) suggests that, `without rituals, myth, religion, poetry and art - that is, without language - there can be no human encounter with beings as such` (p. 103). Friedman (1988) translates Heidegger as saying that, `language is the supreme event of human existence` (p. 69). Language makes culture possible, and allows us a means to understand the world based on the experiences of those who went before us. This pre-ontological understanding of the world, embodied in our language, gives us some hint of the meanings we should seek in allowing other creatures to be. Thus, although Heidegger believes in a sense of timelessness, collapsing all three temporal dimensions (past, present, and future) into one (the here and now), he does acknowledge that our access to things is always shaped and colored by our historical culture. We can only draw on the past as much as to help understand our present, our only entrance and key to the nature of being (Frede, 1993). We are `always already` in this world.

Lemay and Pitts (1994) summarize the contribution of language to our timeless sense of Being : By recognizing ourselves as Dasein and not the thinking thing, we are in a position to realize that a certain, social practice we have allows us to recognize our relationship to Being, and in turn shows us how to live in response to that relationship. This practice, the central preoccupation of the latter part of Heidegger`s life, is language. ... Our entire language, the language of Dasein, becomes the living memory of beings coming into existence or, as Heidegger puts it, `Language is the house of Being.` We are that special being who can ask questions about Being, and having that ability, we become the keepers or guardians of Being. We are thus tied to an endless procession of Being, a primitive way of relating to the world. An authentic existence is tied to the history of coming-to-be, and language, the fundamental unit of Dasein, is the vehicle to transmit that earlier way of being. For Heidegger this meditative `step-back` allows us to encounter the world authentically (Zimmerman, 1993a). Releasement to a simpler, more primitive way of Being can be achieved by activities that `allow the utter silence and stillness needed to become attuned to the openness or nothingness pervading all things` (Zimmerman, 1993b, p. 257). Immersion in a natural world where one can most easily dwell authentically is an appropriate form of this praxis.

  • The relationship between Heideggers ideas and wilderness

Many of the themes of wilderness are found echoed in Heidegger`s work. Perhaps wilderness is our last chance to discover an authentic way of life. Perhaps it is in wilderness that we can reconnect with the beings around us. As Zimmerman (1992) considers, `Wilderness is a direct reminder that not everything can be reduced to the status of a human product, project or construct; wilderness is the `other` which reminds humanity of its own dependency on the powers at work not only in wilderness, but also in humanity itself` (p. 247). The need or desire to visit wilderness may be symptomatic of humanity`s distance from what it truly means to be human.

Ideas of oneness and humility flavor much of Heidegger`s work. He talks of the necessity to reverse our philosophical and technological separation from other beings. In striking a very anti-dualistic stance, Heidegger insists we are inseparable from our world. Furthermore, our only true self is found in unity with other beings. To dwell authentically is to lower the concerns of the self and of the individual ego, and to make room for other beings. To understand and appreciate things for what they are is to stand humble in the glory of a natural way of being. We are a necessary part of the whole, but it is the whole that helps define us.

That whole that Heidegger considers so important to the self reflects not only the influences of the here and now of earth, sky, mortals and divinities, but also our inherited understanding of what it means to be with these things. Language is our ticket back to a simpler, more immediate relationship with the earth. The significance and construction of our words reflect a past that did not directly involve us. But it was built on a history of life experiences. Wilderness provides us an opportunity to rediscover those origins, those original contexts in which our cultural understanding was built. It permits a chance for a more direct relationship with other beings that Heidegger suggests is necessary to solve many of our current crises.

Because Heidegger`s philosophy is so much based on the here and now, he effectively rolls the past, present and future into one. He argues for things to show themselves without any intervening interpretation, and for human existence to be primarily to do with current possibilities, active choices, (as limited only by the `thrownness` of our existence in this world). We are always already here. This loss of self in the moment has remarkable similarities to the state of flow, as described by Csikzentmihalyi. It is also commonly expressed by wilderness visitors. Their desire to escape the complexities and demands of their technological world suggests enthusiasm for living a life, however temporary, without an overload of pressures, commitments and responsibilities other than for the activities and environments at hand. The timelessness of the current moment is one of the delights of the wilderness experience.

Wilderness, and other natural areas, provide one of the clearest opportunities for active caring and authentic dwelling. Within wilderness we most clearly feel attached to, responsible with, and a part of, other things and beings. Most people seem to simply allow other things to be. Within wilderness we tend to most easily accept nature on its terms, and to actively care for the natural objects and beings. Wilderness tends to encourage bonding, or attachment to the environment, rather than consuming or conquering. It means something special to its visitors and they tend to show concern for its existence.

A short example can illustrate the similarities between Heidegger`s ideas and the import of wild nature. Zimmerman (1992), in describing his own development writes : My sense of `selfhood` was molded in part by my attempts to `go over` to the `otherness` of the squirrel-self; my human `voice` was shaped by my identification with the wind in the summer leaves; my sense of civilized `time` gained definition by contrast with the peculiarly timeless-yet-cyclical seasons of the woods; my capacity for `love` was strengthened by the all-embracing repose which I at first experienced as cosmic indifference. ... I also knew that I was deeply attached to the ways of the woods and to the creatures who composed the woods - and that I was losing something by leaving them behind. The woods were a blessing to me because they were `other` to me even while they were kin to me. In my attempts to `go over` to the woods, I was also restored to my own humanity in a way that would not have been possible without these journeys. (p. 269)

Heidegger sees Being as a lifecourse of interaction with the world. Our insights into human: nature interactions therefore take on a greater significance. Indeed, Heidegger provides some themes for that interaction. For example, he says that `Dasein ist Mitsein`, that to be is to be with others, and that others are encountered environmentally. Interactions with others are one expression of our environmental existence, as are feelings and emotions also, which Heidegger believes to be indicators of the quality or strength of our relationship to the environment. The self is another focus of the interaction, as the self is defined by the other beings around it. And finally, Heidegger considers being in nature to be an active task. One cannot know true existence from a distance. Rather, active engagement with the world is required. Thus, in Heidegger`s work we can identify themes common to our notions of human - nature relationships : the focus on self, others, feelings, the divine, and task.

Thus Heidegger provides a sound philosophy in which to base an investigation of the wilderness experience. The combination of phenomenology and existentialism matches an interest in the experience as it unfolds. And the themes of his ontology match the understanding of what it is we seek, and should seek, in our wilderness experiences. A true way of being in the world should be based on the natural relations we can discover in wilderness.

  • References

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Frede, D. (1993). The question of being: Heidegger`s project. In C. B. Guignon (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to Heidegger. (pp. 53-65). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Friedman, M. (1988). Intersubjectivity in Husserl, Satre, Heidegger, and Buber. Review of existential psychology and psychiatry, 21, 63-79.

Grange, J. (1985). Being, feeling, and environment. Environmental Ethics, 7, 351-364.

Grey, J. G. (1957). Heidegger`s course: From human existence to nature. The Journal of Philosophy, 54, 197-207.

Guignon, C. B. (1993). Introduction. In C. B. Guignon (ed.), The Cambridge companion to Heidegger. (pp. 1-15). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kelly, J. R. (1987). Freedom to be : A new sociology of leisure. New York: Macmillian.

LaChapelle, D. (1978). Earth Wisdom. Los Angeles, CA: Guild of Tutors Press.

Lemay, E. & Pitts, J. A. (1994). Heidegger for beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing.

Mannell. R. C. (1980). Social psychological techniques and strategies for studying leisure experiences. In S. Iso-Ahola (Ed.), Social psychological perspective on recreation and leisure. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Tinsley, H. E. A. & Tinsley, D. T. (1986). A theory of the attributes, benefits, and causes of leisure experience. Leisure Sciences, 8, 1-45.

Van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Westra, L. (1994). An environmental proposal for ethics : the principle of integrity. Lanham, MD: Rowman, and Littlefield.

Zimmerman, M .E. (1983). Toward a Heideggerean ethos for radical environmentalism. Environmental Ethics, 5, 99-131.

Zimmerman, M. E. (1992). The blessing of otherness : Wilderness and the human condition. In M. Oelschlaeger (ed.), The Wilderness condition : essays on environment and civilization (pp. 245-270). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.


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