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Martin Heidegger

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Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger (September 26, 1889May 26, 1976) was a German philosopher. He studied at the University of Freiburg under Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, and became a professor there in 1928. He influenced many other major philosophers, and his own students at various times included Hans-Georg Gadamer, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas, and Hannah Arendt.

Life and Career

Heidegger was one of the central figures of the existentialist movement, though he never considered himself a member of the movement. He was an extremely controversial figure in both work and life. His philosophical work was taken up throughout Germany, France, and Japan and gained, since the 1970s at least, a strong following in the United States as well; at the same time, however, it was scorned as rubbish by the Vienna Circle and by British philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Alfred Ayer.

Heidegger (among other German scientists and intellectuals) joined the Nazi Party on May 1st 1933, before he became the rector of the university in Freiburg. He resigned from the rectorship in February 1934. During this time Heidegger's former teacher Husserl, a Jew, was denied the use of the university library at Freiburg because of the racial cleansing laws issued by the Nazi Party. Moreover, Heidegger removed the dedication to Husserl from Being and Time when it was reissued in 1941. Additionally, when his Introduction to Metaphysics (originally 1935) was reissued after the war, he declined to remove a glowing endorsement of the Nazi Party.

A further complication to the story is his affair with Hannah Arendt, a Jew, when she was a doctoral student of his at the University of Marburg. It ended when she moved to Heidelberg to continue with Karl Jaspers, but she later spoke on his behalf at his denazification hearings, and their friendship resumed, if extremely cautiously, after the war, despite or even because of the widespread contempt that Heidegger was held in for his political sympathies, and despite his being forbidden from teaching for a number of years.

Some years later, hoping to quiet controversy, Heidegger gave an interview to Der Spiegel magazine, in which he promised to come clear on these matters provided it was not published until after his death. When the article was published, however, it did not discuss these matters, though one must concede that it was heavily edited. Heidegger's involvements with the Nazis and the lack of a clear apology for them complicated many of his friendships, and continues to complicate the reception of his work. It is not unlikely that Heidegger was antisemitic, and he may not have adored Hitler, but he had clear sympathies for certain elements of Nazism, and he certainly tried to be the Nazi "court philosopher". Whether this is in any way a result of his philosophy is still contested; what is clear is that while Heidegger certainly was a Nazi, the Nazis at large were not Heideggerian in their philosophy.

The possibility that his affiliation with the Nazi party was the result of Heidegger's philosophy is definitely distasteful to most people, and may even lead some to discredit his philosophy as a result. It is worth noting, however, that whether or not it this affiliation is distasteful or even ethically horrifying does not affect the validity of his philosophy; it must stand on its own merits, not on our perception of Nazism.


Being and Time

Heidegger's most important work is the dense and challenging Being and Time (German Sein und Zeit, 1927). Although the book as published represents only a third of the total project outlined in its introduction, it marked a turning point in continental philosophy. It has been massively influential and remains one of the most discussed works of 20th century philosophy; many subsequent philosophical views and approaches, such as existentialism and deconstruction, would have been impossible without Being and Time.

In this work, Heidegger takes up the question of the meaning of being: what does it mean to say that an entity is? This is the fundamental question of ontology, defined by Aristotle as the study of being qua being. In his approach to this question, Heidegger departs from the tradition of Aristotle and of Kant, both of whom, despite the vast difference between their respective philosophical positions, approach the question of the meaning of being from the perspective of the logic of propositional statements. Implicit in this traditional approach is the thesis that theoretical knowledge represents the most fundamental relation between the human individual and the beings in his surrounding world (including himself).

Explicitly rejecting this thesis, Heidegger instead adopts a version of the phenomenological method, purged of what he regards as the residue of Aristotelian/Kantian cognitivism still present in Husserl's formulation of this method. Like Husserl, Heidegger takes as his starting point the phenomenon of intentionality. Human behavior is intentional insofar as it is directed at some being (all building is building of something, all talking is talking about something, etc). Theoretical knowledge represents only one kind of intentional behavior, and Heidegger asserts that it is founded on more fundamental modes of behavior, modes of practical engagement with the surrounding world, rather than being their ultimate foundation. An entity is what it is (i.e., it has being) insofar as it "shows up" within a context of practical engagement (Heidegger calls such a context a 'world') not because it has certain inherent properties ascertainable by disinterested contemplation. A hammer is a hammer not because it has certain hammer-like properties, but because it is used for hammering.

This also necessitated a rejection of the Cartesian, disembodied 'I': that is, an 'I' as a purely thinking object. Instead, Heidegger insisted that any analysis of human behaviour should begin with the fact that we are in the world (not viewing it in an 'abstract' fashion): therefore the fundamental fact about human existence is our 'being-in-the-world'. Human beings, Heidegger insisted, were embodied beings who acted in the world. He therefore rejected the 'subject-object' distinction assumed by most philosophers since Descartes. Things are meaningful to us in terms of their use in certain contexts, which are defined by social norms. However, all of these norms are radically contingent. Their contingency is revealed in the fundamental phenomenon of Angst, in which all norms fall away and beings show up as nothing in particular, in their essential meaninglessness. (Contrary to some existentialist interpretations of Heidegger, this does not mean that all existence is absurd; rather, it means that existence always has the potential for absurdity.) The experience of Angst reveals the essential finitude of human being.

The fact that beings can show up, either as meaningful in a context or as meaningless in the experience of Angst, depends on a prior phenomenon: that beings can show up at all. Heidegger calls the showing up of beings 'truth,' which he defines as unconcealment rather than correctness. This truth of beings", their self-revelation, involves a more fundamental kind of truth, the "disclosure of being in which the being of beings is unconcealed. It is this unconcealment of being that defines human existence for Heidegger: the human being is that being for whom being is an issue, that is, for whom being shows up as such (Heidegger's word for such an entity, which could conceivably have non-human instantiations, is Da-sein). This is why Heidegger begins his inquiry into the meaning of being with an inquiry into the essence of human being; the ontology of Da-sein is fundamental ontology. The unconcealment of being is an essentially temporal and historical phenomenon (hence the "time" in Being and Time); what we call past, present, and future correspond originarily to aspects of this unconcealment and not to three mutually exclusive regions of the homogeneous time that clocks measure (although clock-time is derivative from the originary time of unconcealment, as Heidegger attempts to show in the book's difficult final chapters).

The total understanding of being results from an explication of the implicit knowledge of being that inheres in all human behavior. Philosophy thus becomes a form of interpretation; this is why Heidegger's technique in Being and Time is often referred to as hermeneutical phenomenology. Being and Time, being incomplete, contains Heidegger's statement of this project and his interpretation of human existence and its temporal horizon, but does not contain the working out of the meaning of being as such on the basis of this interpretation. This ambitious task is taken up in a different way in his later works (see below).

As part of his ontological project, Heidegger undertakes a reinterpretation of previous Western philosophy. He wants to explain why and how theoretical knowledge came to seem like the most fundamental relation to being. This explanation takes the form of a destructuring (Destruktion) of the philosophical tradition, an interpretive strategy that reveals the fundamental experience of being at the base of previous philosophies. In Being and Time he briefly destructures the philosophy of Descartes; in later works he uses this approach to interpret the philosophies of Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Plato, among others. This technique exerted a profound influence on Derrida's deconstructive approach, although there are very important differences between the two methods.

Being and Time is the towering achievement of Heidegger's early career, but there are other important works from this period, including Die Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie (The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, 1927), Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik (Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, 1929), and "Was ist Metaphysik?" ("What is Metaphysics?", 1929).

Later works

Although Heidegger claimed that all of his writings concerned a single question, the question of being, in the years after the publication of Being and Time the focus of his work gradually changed. This change is often referred to as Heidegger's Kehre (turn). In his later works, Heidegger turns from "doing" to "dwelling." He focuses less on the way in which the structures of being are revealed in everyday behavior and in the experience of Angst, and more on the way in which behavior itself depends on a prior "openness to being." The essence of being human is the maintenance of this openness. (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 Wittgenstein, but it is important enough to justify a division of the Heideggerian corpus into "early" (roughly, 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 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. 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, many of Heidegger's later works are characterized by an unmistakable agrarian nostalgia.

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 Concerning Technology," 1953) and Was heisst Denken? ("What is called Thinking," 1954)

Further Reading

There is a large secondary literature on Heidegger's philosophy. Accessible commentaries on Being and Time include Being-in-the-World by Hubert Dreyfus and Heidegger's Temporal Idealism by William Blattner. By far the best and most even-handed biography of Heidegger, which also is perhaps the best introduction to his thought, is Rüdiger Safranski's Heidegger. Between Good and Evil (Harvard University Press).

More information on the subject of Heidegger's political history can be found in Victor Farias's book, Heidegger and Nazism. It should be noted that in many philosophical circles, Farias' arguments are controversial, and many of his conclusions are contested. Another relatively accessible account that attempts to work with the philosophical meaning of Heidegger's political involvement is Dominique Janicaud's The Shadow of That Thought. Hans Sluga's book Heidegger's Crisis: Philosophy & Politics in Nazi Germany gives a fair examination of the relations between philosophy and politics. Similar questions have been taken up from a philosophical perspective by (among others) Derrida in On Spirit and Lyotard in Heidegger and "the jews".


We each die our own death; no one can die for us.

Nothing noths (Das Nichts nichtet).

External links

This article is part of the Influential Western Philosophers series
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