Martin Heidegger (September 26, 1889 – May 26, 1976) is considered by many to be one of the most significant and influential philosophers of the twentieth century. The central thematic of his work was the attempt to reorient the Western tradition away from metaphysical and epistemological concerns and toward ontological questions. Ontology is the study of being qua being and Heidegger attempted to re-open the question of being, one that he claimed had been forgotten and concealed. In order to undergo this task, Heidegger used the phenomenological method that he inherited and developed from his teacher Edmund Husserl. The publication of his magnum opus Being and Time was a watershed event in the twentieth-century European philosophy, influencing subsequent developments of phenomenology, but also existentialism, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and post-modernism.
Heidegger was born in Messkirch in Boden, a rural Catholic region of Germany. His father was a craftsman and a sexton at the local Catholic church. Attending two Jesuit schools during his high school years, religion and theology played an important role in Heidegger's early education. He finished his theological training at the university in Freiburg in 1909, deciding to pursue studies in mathematics and philosophy instead. He received his doctoral degree in philosophy after completing a dissertation on The Theory of Judgment in Psychologies in 1913 and a habilitation dissertation on the Theory of Categories and Meaning in Duns Scotus in 1915. From 1916 to 1917 he was an unsalaried Privatdozent before serving as a weatherman on the Ardennes front during the last three months of World War I. In 1917 Heidegger married Elfriede Petri in a Protestant wedding and by 1919 they both converted to Protestantism. Heidegger was employed as an assistant to Edmund Husserl at the university in Freiburg until 1923. During this time, he built a mountain cabin in Todtnauberg in the nearby Black Forest, a retreat that he would use throughout the rest of his life. In 1923 he became a professor at the university in Marburg where he had several notable students including: Hans-Georg Gadamer, Karl Lowith, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt. After publishing his magnum opus Being and Time in 1927, he returned to Freiburg to occupy the chair vacated by Husserl's retirement. In 1933 he became a member of the NSDAP (the Nazi party) and was soon after appointed Rector of the university. After World War II, the French Occupation Authority banned him from teaching from 1945 to 1947 because of his involvement in National Socialism but by 1951 he was reinstated as an emeritus professor. He taught regularly from 1951-1958 and by invitation until 1967. He died on May 26, 1976, and was buried in his hometown of Messkirch.
As a young theologian, Heidegger was versed in medieval Scholasticism and eventually the writings of Martin Luther and Søren Kierkegaard. His religious studies portrayed a particular interest in the non-theoretical dimension of religious life, one that would subsequently shape his unique brand of phenomenology. His early studies also introduced him to biblical hermeneutics, a form of interpretation that Heidegger would appropriate and enrich in a philosophical context. In 1907, Heidegger read Franz Brentano's On the Several Senses of Being in Arisotle which awakened a fascination with the classical question of being, one that would occupy the central place in his thought throughout his career. The most significant influence on Heidegger was Edmund Husserl, whose phenomenology would provide the method by which Heidegger would retrieve and explore his ontological investigations. Heidegger's relationship with Husserl was intense and became contentious as Heidegger eventually developed phenomenology beyond the intentions of his teacher and mentor. Heidegger's mature work shows an interest in various historical figures and periods spanning the Western philosophical tradition, most notably: the Pre-Socratics, Greek philosophy, Kant, and Nietzsche. Later in his life, his work becomes increasinly preoccupied with the poetry of Holderlin, Rilke, and Trakl.
Prior to the publication of Being and Time in 1927, Heidegger evidenced a strong interest in the analogy between mystical experience and experience in general. By probing the dimensions of religious experience, Heidegger sought to uncover in the factitious life of Christianity a form of existence that is often glossed over by the philosophical tradition. But it was not until he was introduced to Husserlian phenomenology that he would have the methodological grounding for his religious interests. Phenomenology is the study of experience and the ways in which things present themselves in and through experience. Taking its starting point from the first-person perspective, phenomenology attempts to describe the essential features or structures of a given experience or any experience in general. In attempting to describe the structure of experiences, the phenomenological concern is not only what is encountered in the experience (the entity) but also the way in which it is encountered (the entity's being).
Being and Time is composed of a systematic analysis of human being (Dasein) as a preparatory investigation into the meaning of being as such. This analysis was originally meant as a preliminary stage of the project, but Part II of the book was never published. In his later work, Heidegger pursues the unfinished stages of Being and Time in a less systematic form.
In order for Heidegger to gain secure footing for his "fundamental ontology," he first investigates how the issue of being arises in the first place. He claims that being only becomes a matter of concern for one unique entity, the human being. Thus, in order to get traction regarding the question of being, Daseins way of being must first be illuminated. One significant aspect of this way of being is Daseins immersion and absorption in its environment. Heidegger calls the immediacy in which Dasein finds itself concerned in everyday life Daseins being-in-the-world.
Because Dasein always already finds itself concerned with its practical affairs, it is always disclosing various possibilities for its existence. The ultimate possibility for Daseins existence is its own death. Death reveals itself through anxiety and Heidegger's account of anxiety is famous and influential. The significance of Daseins understanding itself as a being-towards-death is that Daseins existence is essentially finite. When it authentically understands itself as an "ending thing," it gains an appreciation for the unique temporal dimension of its existence. Dasein is not merely temporal in an ordinary chronological sense, but ecstatically projects itself toward the future. This radical temporal mode of Daseins existence saturates the entire range of Daseins being-in-the-world, including its understanding of being. Thus, for Dasein, being is always understood temporally and is, in fact, a temporal process. The conclusion that Heidegger ultimately reaches in Being and Time is not only that Dasein is fundamentally temporal, but also that the meaning of being is time.
Heidegger claimed that all of his writings are concerned with a single question, the question of being, but in the years after the publication of Being and Time the way in which he pursued this question developed. This change is often referred to as Heidegger's Kehre (turn or tack). One could say that in his later works, Heidegger shifts his focus from the way in which Dasein's practical involvement in the world is revelatory of being to the way in which this behavior depends on a prior "openness to being." (The difference between Heidegger's early and late works is more a difference of emphasis than a radical break like that between the early and late works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but it is important enough to justify a division of the Heideggerian corpus into "early" (rough, pre-1930) and "late" writings.)
Heidegger opposes this openness to the "will to power" of the modern human subject, who subordinates beings to his own ends rather than letting them "be what they are." Heidegger interprets the history of western philosophy as a brief period of authentic openness to being in the time of the pre-Socratics, especially Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Anaximander, followed by a long period increasingly dominated by nihilistic subjectivity, initiated by Plato and culminating in Nietzsche.
In the later writings, two recurring themes are poetry and technology. Heidegger sees poetry as a preeminent way in which beings are revealed "in their being." The play of poetic language (which is, for Heidegger, the essence of language itself) reveals the play of presence and absence that is being itself. Heidegger focuses especially on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin.
Against the revealing power of poetry, Heidegger sets the force of technology. The essence of technology is the conversion of the whole universe of beings into an undifferentiated "standing reserve" (Bestand) of energy available for any use to which humans choose to put it. The standing reserve represents the most extreme nihilism, since the being of beings is totally subordinated to the will of the human subject. Indeed, Heidegger described the essence of technology as Gestell, or enframing. Heidegger does not unequivocally condemn technology; he believes that its increasing dominance might make it possible for humanity to return to its authentic task of the stewardship of being. Nevertheless, an unmistakable agrarian nostalgia permeates much of his later work.
Heidegger's important later works include Vom Wesen der Wahrheit ("On the Essence of Truth," 1930), Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes ("The Origin of the Work of Art," 1935), Bauen Wohnen Denken ("Building Dwelling Thinking," 1951), and Die Frage nach der Technik ("The Question of Technology," 1953) and Was heisst Denken? ("What Is Called Thinking?" 1954).
Heidegger's philosophy has been read as opening up the possibility for dialogue with traditions of thought outside of Western philosophy, particularly East Asian thinking. This is an ambiguous aspect of Heidegger's philosophy, insofar as his notions such as "language as the house of being" seem precisely to rule out such a possibility. Eastern and Western thought literally and metaphorically don't speak the same language. However certain elements in Heidegger's latter work, particularly the dialogue between A Japanese and an Inquirer, do show an interest in such a dialogue occurring. Heidegger himself had contact with a number of leading Japanese intellectuals of his time in the Kyoto School. Furthermore it has also claimed that a number of elements within Heidegger's thought bear a close parallel to Eastern philosophical ideas, particularly with Zen Buddhism and Daoism.
Heidegger, like Husserl, is an explicitly acknowledged influence on existentialism, despite his explicit disavowal and objection, in texts such as the Letter on Humanism, of the importation of key elements of his work into existentialist contexts. While Heidegger was banned from university teaching for a period shortly after the war on account of his activities as Rector of Freiburg, he developed a number of contacts in France who continued to teach his work and brought their students to visit him in Todtnauberg (see, for example, Jean-François Lyotard's brief account in Heidegger and 'the Jews': A Conference in Vienna and Freiburg, which discusses a Franco-German conference held in Freiburg in 1947, a first step in bringing together French and German students after the war). Heidegger subsequently made efforts to keep abreast of developments in French philosophy by way of recommendations from Jean Beaufret, who was an early French translator, and Lucien Braun.
Deconstruction as it is generally understood (i.e., as French and Anglo-American phenomena profoundly rooted in Heidegger's work, with limited general exposure in a German context until the 1980s) came to Heidegger's attention in 1967 by way of Lucien Braun's recommendation of Jacques Derrida's work (Hans-Georg Gadamer was present at an initial discussion and indicated to Heidegger that Derrida's work came to his attention by way of an assistant). Heidegger expressed interest in meeting Derrida personally after the latter sent him some of his work. (There was discussion of a meeting in 1972, but this did not happen.) Heidegger's interest in Derrida is said by Braun to have been considerable (as is evident in two letters, of September 29, 1967 and May 16, 1972, from Heidegger to Braun). Braun also brought to Heidegger's attention the work of Michel Foucault. Foucault's relation to Heidegger is a matter of considerable difficulty; Foucault acknowledged Heidegger as a philosopher whom he read but never wrote about. (For more on this see Penser à Strasbourg, Jacques Derrida, et al, which includes reproductions of both letters and an account by Braun, À mi-chemin entre Heidegger et Derrida).
One feature that garnered initial interest in a French context (which propagated rather quickly to scholars of French literature and philosophy working in American universities) was Derrida's efforts to displace the understanding of Heidegger's work that had been prevalent in France from the period of the ban against Heidegger teaching in German universities, which amounts in part to an almost wholesale rejection of the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialist terms. In Derrida's view, deconstruction is a tradition inherited via Heidegger (the French term déconstruction is a term coined to translate Heidegger's use of the words Destruktion (literally "destruction") and Abbau (more literally "de-building"), whereas Sartre's interpretation of Dasein and other key Heideggerian terms is overly psychologistic and (ironically) anthropocentric, consisting of a radical misconception of the limited number of Heidegger's texts commonly studied in France up to that point.
Heidegger's importance to the world of continental philosophy is probably unsurpassed. His reception among analytic philosophers, however, is quite another story. Saving a moderately favorable review in Mind by a young Gilbert Ryle of Being and Time shortly after its publication, Heidegger's analytic contemporaries generally regarded both the content and style of Heidegger's work problematic.
The analytic tradition values clarity of expression, whereas Heidegger thought "making itself intelligible was suicide for philosophy." Apart from the charge of obscurantism, analytic philosophers generally considered the actual content that could be gleaned from Heidegger's work to be either faulty and frivolous, unpalatably subjective or uninteresting. This view has largely survived, and Heidegger is still derided by most analytical philosophers, who deem his work to have been disastrous for philosophy, in that a clear line can be traced from it to most varieties of postmodern thinking.
His reputation among analytic philosophers has improved slightly through the impact of Richard Rorty's philosophy on the English-speaking world; Rorty even claims that Heidegger's approach to philosophy in the second half of his career has much in common with that of the latter-day Ludwig Wittgenstein—one of the giants of analytical philosophy.
Heidegger joined the Nazi Party on May 1, 1933, before being appointed rector of the University of Freiburg. He resigned the rectorship in April 1934. However, he remained a member of the Nazi party until the end of the war. During his time as Rector, Freiburg denied Heidegger's former teacher Husserl, born a Jew and an adult Lutheran convert, access of the university library, invoking the Nazi racial cleansing laws. Heidegger also removed the dedication to Husserl from Being and Time when it was reissued in 1941, later claiming he did so because of pressure from his publisher, Max Niemeyer. Additionally, when Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics (based on lectures given in 1935) was published in 1953, he declined to remove a reference to the "inner truth and greatness of this movement” [die innere Wahrheit und Größe dieser Bewegung], i.e. National Socialism. Instead of deleting or altering the text, he added the parenthetical gloss, "(namely, the confrontation of planetary technology and modern humanity) (nämlich [die] Begegnung der planetarisch bestimmten Technik und des neuzeitlichen Menschen)." Many readers, notably Jürgen Habermas, came to interpret this ambiguous remark as evidence of his continued commitment to National Socialism.
Critics further cite Heidegger's affair with Hannah Arendt, who was Jewish, while she was his doctoral student at the University of Marburg. This affair took place in the 1920s, some time before Heidegger's involvement in Nazism, but it did not end when she moved to Heidelberg to continue her studies with Karl Jaspers. She later spoke on his behalf at his denazification hearings. Jaspers spoke against him at these same hearings, suggesting he would have a detrimental influence on German students because of his powerful teaching presence. Arendt very cautiously resumed their friendship after the war, despite or even because of the widespread contempt for Heidegger and his political sympathies, and despite his being forbidden to teach for some years.
Some years later, hoping to quiet controversy, Heidegger gave an interview to Der Spiegel magazine, in which he agreed to discuss his political past provided that the interview be published posthumously. It should be noted that Heidegger extensively edited, at his insistence, the published version of the interview. In that interview, Heidegger's defense of his Nazi involvement runs in two tracks: first, he argued that there was no alternative, saying that he was trying to save the university (and science in general) from being politicized and thus had to compromise with the Nazi administration. Second, he saw an "awakening" (Aufbruch) which might help to find a "new national and social approach." After 1934, he said, he would (should?) have been more critical of the Nazi government. Heidegger's answers to some questions are evasive. For example, when he talks about a "national and social approach" of national socialism, he links this to Friedrich Naumann. But Naumann's national-sozialer Verein was not at all national socialist, but liberal. Heidegger seems to have deliberately created this confusion. Also, he alternates quickly between his two lines of arguments, overlooking any contradictions. And his statements often tend to take the form "others were much more Nazi than me" and "the Nazis did bad things to me, too" which, while true, miss the point.
Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi movement, and his failure to regret or apologize for having done so, complicated many of his friendships and continues to complicate the reception of his work. The extent to which his political failings are connected to and resulted from the content of his philosophy is still hotly debated. Still, the mere possibility that Heidegger's affiliation with the Nazi party might have been an unfortunate consequence of his philosophical thinking appears sufficient for some people to discredit him as a philosopher. As Jean-François Lyotard remarked, the formula becomes "if a Nazi, then not a great thinker" or, on the other hand, "if a great thinker, then not a Nazi." Whether or not this formula is valid, it is nevertheless used by many to disregard or discredit not only Heidegger the man, but also Heidegger the thinker.
Heidegger's collected works are published by Vittorio Klostermann, Heidegger's house press, in Frankfurt am Main. It was started by Heidegger himself and is not completed yet. There are four series, (I) Publications, (II) Lectures, and (III) Unpublished material, lectures, and notes, and (IV), Hinweise und Aufzeichnungen.
There is a large secondary literature on Heidegger's philosophy, much of it not in English. The following books are good resources to begin with.
By far the best and most even-handed biography of Heidegger, and also a good introduction to his thought, is
More about Heidegger's political history can be found in
Farias' arguments are controversial in many philosophical circles, which also contest most of his conclusions. Less controversial examinations of the relation between Heidegger's politics and philosophy are:
The role of Heidegger's influence in France has been repeatedly documented. See
All links retrieved February 13, 2014.
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