“A home” is not “Home”

Ordinary language is a continual source of insight. As Heidegger says in Building Dwelling Thinking:

It is language that tells us about the nature of a thing, provided that we respect language’s own nature. . . Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.

In this essay, Heidegger explores what it means to dwell, how it differs from building, and what is the relationship between the two. While dwelling is achieved by means of building, not every building is a dwelling. He arrives at some of his conclusions by exploring the etymology of the word Bauen, German for building, demonstrating his method of analyzing language to discover how language defines us, not the other way around.

Oak Barn (Photo: Nancy Moore)

An uncanny example–I say uncanny because it is so apt, yet surely unintended–of how ordinary language captures the distinction between dwelling and building, while revealing something about us, is in a genre of publishing known as “shelter magazines,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Of or designating publications whose subject matter is the home, esp. interior design, architecture, etc.”

In ordinary language, these publications are known collectively–and pejoratively–as “real estate porn.” Shelter magazines are big, glossy, expensive and ubiquitous, and endure much by the same means as pornography: their thrust is pleasure, their raw material physicality, the stimuli are sensual, and the end goal is satisfaction. The unflattering association is thus not without merit, and aptly captured by the phrase.

For all that, like porn, shelter magazines fall short of their ultimate goal–to satisfy. Why? The answer is captured by keeping firmly in mind the difference between the particularity of “a home” and the more universal idea of “home.” The former is an edifice. It is enough for it to be functional and structurally sound. The latter is the locus of dwelling. It transcends functionality and soundness as it satisfies them. To dwell is constitutive of being human, it is a form of “being-in-the-world.” We strive for something we call home, which, depending on the trajectory of one’s life, is either a return to a place of origin or an arrival at a destination. There is where we dwell or hope to dwell. The most a shelter magazine can offer is an image of a home, a shelter, something that can only suggest, at best, the possibility of true dwelling.