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Scruton and Heidegger on Dwelling by Karl-Gustel Wärnberg

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Scruton and Heidegger on Dwelling

"The Home of a Hunter" (1826), a 78 × 12 cm oil on panel by Henri Voordecker (1779- 1861), located in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The concept of ‘dwelling’ serves as a source for our pre-political loyalties and these loyalties allow a sense of the common good to arise. Here, I will expand on these arguments by comparing two crucial thinkers in the contemporary world: Martin Heidegger and Roger Scruton.      

Scruton claimed that he never liked Heidegger. He was known to say things like: “Looked at critically, Heidegger’s ideas seem like spectral visions in the realm of thought; vast, intangible shadows cast by language.” But despite this kind of characterization, he often returned to Heidegger’s thought and conceptual apparatus, such as in the Dutch documentary Of Beauty & Consolation, which was recorded in his farm (known to initiates as ‘Scrutopia’). In fact, there is much common ground between Scruton and Heidegger, and reflecting on their ideas of home, settling, dwelling, and building, this like-mindedness becomes clear. 

For Heidegger, building is to dwell. We build in order to dwell. This may initially sound like a quite abstract claim, but in reality it is an extremely concrete claim about human life. People travel, conduct global business, and rest their heads temporarily in far-off places during their earthly sojourn. Nonetheless, to be mortal is ultimately to dwell, Heidegger maintains. Dwelling implies setting down roots, cultivating the soil, and making a home. These ideas are brought to the fore in his 1951 essay “Building, Dwelling, Thinking.” Reflecting on the etymology of the term for building (High German buan), Heidegger elucidates its connection to ‘dwelling.’ We have lost this sense of building-in-order-to-dwell, to coin a Heideggerian phrase. An example would be how we no longer build houses which have a feeling of home attached to them, due to their style and architecture, embodying a particular culture and tradition. Instead, we build houses with a utilitarian mindset, which end up being neither comfortable to live in nor harmonious with the traditional architecture that has arisen over time. Yet, the connection between building and dwelling remains perceptible in words such as the German Nachbar: neighbour, meaning near-dweller or one-who-dwells-nearby. Heidegger digs deep through this etymological excavation, erecting an ontological (in the true Heideggerian sense, dissecting the nature of Being) edifice on top of his archeological site. He reflects on the nature of mortal beings, whose essence it is to stand in relation to the inevitable death that awaits them. This death does not, however, “mean to darken dwelling by blindly staring toward the end.” Instead, it is by means of dwelling that mortals can find themselves at home in the world, precisely as mortals who stand in relation to the world around them and the end that confronts them. 

Scruton quipped that Heidegger’s philosophy is “formidably difficult; unless it’s total nonsense. In which case it’s laughably easy.” This is in response primarily to Heidegger’s philosophy of Being, including such concepts as Dasein and Being-Towards-Death. In his book I Drink, Therefore I Am, Scruton questions such philosophies of being, stretching back to Aristotle, via the mediaeval scholastics, leading us into a web of entangled phrases. Surely, he asks, concrete beings such as humans or horses matter, while that unknown and exalted entity of ‘pure Being’ remains aloof? Being, in this context, refers to existence itself and what it means for there to “be” anything at all in the first place. Moreover, turning our attention to particular beings, such as they exist in the world, is something Heidegger does as well—albeit wrapped in both traditional and invented jargon. Scruton points us towards the same truths, which he unconcealed through simplicity and a gentle voice, beckoning us to consider what might ultimately make us feel at home in this world. He does so by coining the phrase “oikophilia.”

The word derives from the Greek words oikos for ‘home’ and philia for ‘love,’ hence meaning ‘the love of home.’ In his book Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet, Scruton shows modern readers worried about the ‘climate crisis’ that solutions to the calamity exist. They are not, however, the solutions offered by global corporations and supra-national organisations. Instead, we must look to our own nations for a motive of action. This is because we humans are motivated by what we love. When we settle down in a place, we are confronted with its history, its people, and its traditions. We chose to make ourselves part of this community, or we might already have been born into it. Scruton decided to make a home for himself in the countryside together with his family, which he reflects upon in News from Somewhere: On Settling

Both Heidegger and Scruton, then, point us towards an idea of settling down in a place which we can call home. There is a vast difference between the transient life where we refuse to accept any one place as ‘ours,’ and a life where we are defined by a community and a place. Recent history has highlighted this gap, with the increased opportunity of travel, despite a momentary pause due to COVID restrictions. Neither Scruton nor Heidegger, I dare suggest, would be against travel. Nor are they necessarily against the transient life of those who so chose to live their lives. The problem arises when the transient lifestyle infringes upon settled communities, when it comes at the expense of homebuilding, and when it erodes the sense of dwelling. Dwelling is a communal enterprise, evidenced by Heidegger’s reference to ‘neighbours,’ and a refusal to partake in this enterprise threatens the stability of a home. Think only of the great financial districts in New York or London. They are flurries of activity during the weekdays, but on the weekend, they are abandoned like the ghost towns they truly are, and in which nobody could feel a sense of belonging.

A shared insight of Scruton and Heidegger is that places of dwelling matter. For this reason, what these places look like also matters. Heidegger wrote that “Residential buildings do indeed provide shelter; today’s houses may even be well planned, easy to keep, attractively cheap, open to air, light, and sun, but—do the houses in themselves hold any guarantee that dwelling occurs in them?” In similar fashion, Scruton said in his BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters, “If you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless.” Each dwelling place must reflect an identity and communicate a sense of homecoming. If it remains a utilitarian project, this sense of home cannot arise. We are not created only for commerce; we are not reducible to a one-size-fits-all model. Humans are complex, sometimes contradictory, and prone to their own quirks. Out of this seeming imperfection works of true architectural and sculptural beauty have arisen, decorating the towns and cities of Europe. 

Naturally, there are notable differences between the two thinkers as well. They came from two different traditions; Heidegger being a Continental Philosopher par excellence, creating a new vocabulary and being one of few philosophers who can—with some credibility—be said to have reshaped or redirected philosophy (for better or worse). Scruton was trained in the Analytical Tradition but turned his creative genius to the Continental questions which he tackled with the help of his Analytical rigour. The result is a unique range of interests and disciplined reflection, remaining grounded in the conservative tradition which oftentimes motivated his inquiries. Heidegger was an active member of the Nazi party, and so talk of dwelling and tilling the soil carries dark undertones, while Scruton’s farming examples lead the mind to ideals of the English gentleman which he also personified. Taking their work at face value, on the other hand, the ideas and underlying traditions can help us better grasp why dwelling matters, why we should care to build a home together, and why building itself is related to settling down rather than uprooting potential dwelling grounds.

Karl-Gustel Wärnberg holds an M.A. in the History of Science and Ideas from Uppsala University. He is the editor-in-chief of Fighter Magazine, Sweden’s oldest martial arts magazine.