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Born: 1889, Messkirch, Baden, Germany

Died: 1976, Messkirch, Baden, Germany

Major Works: Being and Time (1927), An Introduction to Metaphysics (1953), Poetry, Language, Thought (1971), On the Way to Language (1959)

Major Ideas

Although the meaning of being is the basic issue for philosophy, its true nature has been forgotten and concealed.

Human beings are uniquely open to being but must be understood in terms of existential categories rather than traditional, objectifying categories.

Being must be understood in terms of temporality.

Being can be understood only through a meditative and poetic kind of thinking that is not calculative or objectifying.

Insofar as being can be conceptualized, it is that which enables beings to be revealed in a dynamic event that conceals even as it reveals.

Martin Heidegger is widely acknowledged to be one of the most significant philosophers of the twentieth century. Certainly he is one of the most influential philosophers, exerting an extraordinary impact upon many disciplines other than philosophy. This, however, does not mean that his thought is well understood. His most famous work, Being and Time, was a seminal text for the existentialist and phenomenological movements, but he himself refused his blessing to such developments of his work. He repeatedly claimed that every true thinker thinks only one thought, and his thought was that of the Being of beings. He was entranced with the classical question of ontology, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Being and Time, with its anthropological and existentialist emphasis, was only a way station, as he himself later said, upon the route of contemplating being. Any treatment of Heidegger's thought therefore must take into consideration the early Heidegger, epitomized in Being and Time, and the later Hei degger, where his focus upon being is clearer.

Heidegger's early theological studies at Jesuit schools in preparation for the priesthood (1903-11) awakened his interest in hermeneutics and language. However, while studying and later teaching (1915-23) at the University of Freiburg, he fell under the spell of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology and for a decade regularly taught courses concerning phenomenology. He worked closely with Husserl until Heidegger left to become full professor at the University of Marburg in 1923. He returned to Freiburg to be the successor to Husserl's chair in 1928 and dedicated Being and Time to Husserl. At that time, though, the two had a serious disagreement about Heidegger's understanding of phenomenology as a method for ontology, which resulted in Heidegger's infrequent use of the term "phenomenology" in the rest of his work.

In 1933, Heidegger became rector of the University of Freiburg and enthusiastically supported the burgeoning National Socialist movement. Although he quickly withdrew from his rectorship in 1934 and from his avid support for the new regime, he was not allowed to teach for several years after the war. This problematic political involvement, coupled with the paucity of his publication in the intervening years, meant that Heidegger's fame centered for a long time on his earlier work Being and Time, often mediated through the works of existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann. A fuller understanding of Heidegger thus awaited the publication and translation of his later lectures and works.

In the meantime, Heidegger himself shifted away from the anthropological and phenomenological preoccupations of Being and Time toward more direct reflection on being. In the mid-thirties, he turned to a difficult poetic mode of philosophizing, indeed, oft en reflecting on poetic texts themselves. In particular, he was stirred by the German poet Friedrich Holderlin Being and Time, however, continues to be indispensable for understanding his later work.

Being and Time

Against the prevailing characteristics of traditional philosophy, in Being and Time Heidegger inaugurated a dramatically different approach. He charged that the Western world is characterized by "a flight from thinking." Above all, he believed that the meaning of being has been forgotten and covered over by Western thought. Being has too often been understood as only the most abstract and therefore empty of categories, as a supreme being, as a first cause, or as simply the properties common to beings in general. This "ontotheological" approach to being, as he called it, continued the tradition of Western philosophy stemming from Plato in focusing on beings rather than on being as such. In Heidegger's terms, it ignored "the ontological difference" between the two. The prime concern of Heidegger's work, therefore, was to reorient the understanding of being, which Heidegger termed in Being and Time "fundamental ontology."

To complicate matters further, the nature of truth itself as well as that of being had to be rethought. "Truth" has been understood as the correspondence of the idea in a subject to an external object. This is an abstraction, Heidegger argued, based upon a more fundamental experience of truth as "unhiddenness," appealing, as he often did, to the etymology of the Greek word for truth, aletheia. Truth then is the dynamic disclosure or "presencing" of beings made possible by being.

Heidegger s planned approach for Being and Time therefore consisted of two stages: One was through an existential analysis of human being to uncover a renewed understanding of time as the proper horizon for understanding being. The second was a "destruction" or "overcoming" of the history of philosophy to situate historically such a fundamental ontology. As the book stands, it is but a beginning. It contains the existential analysis, which is two-thirds of the first part of the total project. It omits a planned discussion of "time and being" as well as the entire historical second part.

Nevertheless, the existential anthropology contained in Being and Time remains as one of the small number of most significant works in the twentieth century. It represents a tour de force in providing a fresh framework for understanding human beings and, beyond that, Western philosophy in general. Despite the repeated emphasis in the book itself that his real concern was ontology, the foreshortened nature of Being and Time gave rise to the impression that Heidegger was an existentialist concerned primarily with human beings rather than with being. The reason for the preoccupation with persons evident in Being and Time was that human beings are unique manifestations of being. They are the only beings for whom being is an issue and, moreover, an inherently personal, or existential, issue. As Heidegger stated, one's being always has the character of "mineness." Thus, Heidegger argued that persons have a vague, preconceptual understanding of being, providing a starting point for ontology. More generally, he poin ted out that being can never appear at all without the necessary aware ness or "clearing" existing in human being.

The method for bringing this preconceptual understanding of being to light is that of hermeneutical phenomenology. Phenomenology directs one to a careful description of the lived experience of human being itself, apart from preoccupation with theories or common-sense ideas about such experience. As opposed to Husserl, however, Heidegger put this method in the service of revealing being and also realized that such an attempt to probe beneath what has been covered over is inevitably an act of interpretation. In this context, Heidegger reveals himself to be one of the premier advocates of the historicity of human beings, arguing that all understanding is inherently interpretive, or hermeneutical, in part due to the fact that people approach everything with preunderstandings shaped by their situation in history.

When Heidegger turned to a phenomenological description of persons, he saw that they are first immersed in the world before one can think of them as separate subjects or isolated egos, so he called human beings in this regard Dasein, literally, "being there." The preoccupation of modern philosophy with how the ego can validly know the external world is an example of not being able to discover the right answer because of having asked the wrong question. Heidegger's rich phenomenological description of Dasein's being-in-the-world therefore avoids traditional philosophical categories appropriate to subjects distinct from external objects. Rather, he intentionally seeks a language closer to human existence. As is already evident, he virtually has to create a new philosophical vocabulary to do so.

A major thesis is that human being's practical, everyday engagement with the world is in terms of practical tools that are "ready-to-hand," as opposed to inert objects for inspection and analysis that are simply "present-at-hand." Moreover, far from being isolated egos, everyday human being is always lived within the horizon of other persons, that is, in a "with-world."

Beginning with this more practical and more original relation to the world opens up an understanding of human being in dynamic categories, which Heidegger terms "existentials." The primary existential structures are temporally related. "State-of-being" or "facticity" refers to the givenness or thrownness of human life that stems from one's past, which is manifested in deep-seated moods, particularly the mood of anxiety. Heidegger calls the human orientation or projection toward the horizon of the future "understanding," which gives rise to "discourse" or speech in the present as an interpretation of how it stands with one's being. These three existentials, while separable for the purposes of analysis, in reality interpenetrate one another. The open-endedness of human projection into the future gave rise to Heidegger's paradoxical characterization of the essence of human beings as their existence, which in Jean-Paul Sartre's hands became the central maxim of the existentialist movement.

To these existentials Heidegger adds another that constantly accompanies average everydayness, namely, fallenness. This term refers to the way persons find themselves absorbed in an inauthentic way in the world, in the crowd, in anonymity. As Heidegger circles back again and again to view Dasein from yet another vantage point, he shows that authenticity occurs when one becomes aware of one's thrownness yet at the same time accepts one's responsibility for an open future and faces this contingency resolutely. This awareness he terms the call of conscience. It particularly occurs when anxiety reveals one's finite freedom in light of the confines of one's lifetime, in other words, in the light of the inevitable closure of one's death. Dasein's "being-towards-death" consequently is the entree for the uncanny call of being to authenticity.

The Later Heidegger

The later Heidegger became convinced that even the novel approach of Being and Time was not radical enough; it partook too much of modern philosophy's Cartesian turn to the subject and search for foundational conditions of thought. Heidegger therefore shifted initiative away from Dasein to being itself. In several historical works, he argued that even ontology was hopelessly caught up in objectified ways of thinking, so he dropped his plea for a fundamental ontology. He presented Nietzsche as the culmination of Western philosophy, as an ironic "last metaphysician," whose subjective "will to power" is the end result of the turn in Plato from being to beings. Instead, he called for a return to earlier beginnings of philosophy, to pre-Socratics such as Parmenides and Heraclitus, to spur a new type of thinking at "the end of philosophy."

His dissatisfaction with traditional conceptualities to express the mystery of being was due to his conviction that they partake of the spirit of modern technology, which is but another way that the subject expresses its domination over a world of objects. Authentic thinking of being demands a meditative rather than calculative approach; it emphasizes "releasement" (Gelassenheit, or "letting be") rather than resoluteness. Questions are more important than answers. Additionally, the creative potential for thus evoking being lies in poetic language more than in the structure of human being. Despite the fact' that Heidegger always thought that language was "worn out" and often merely "idle talk," he is a central figure in the linguistic turn that one finds throughout twentieth-century philosophy. As opposed to other emphases on logical analysis or on ordinary language, Heidegger sought to penetrate to the creative springs of language that he found best exemplified by certain poets and, enigmatically, in listeni ng and silence as much as in verbalization As this originating capacity for disclosure language is the house of Being." If being is to be revealed it must be revealed through language The ontological import of language for Heidegger is such that it is truer to say that language speaks us rather than to say that we speak language. So his later attempts to be "on the way to language," as the title of one of his books indicates, are one metaphorical foray after another in order to elicit an authentic thinking of being. This emphasis on the creative power of language has had great influence in the social sciences, aesthetics, and theology. A famous dialogue with a Buddhist priest in On the Way to Language also revealed much in common with mystical and Eastern ways of thought.

Although the later Heidegger indicated a more passive role for human being in relation to being, to thinking, and to language, he presupposed much of his earlier existential analytic. He continued to speak of "caring" Dasein as necessary for the appearing of being. He continued to emphasize that Dasein alone "stands out" ("ex-sists") from being in such a way that being can be revealed. The difference is that the later Heidegger prefers to speak of being itself rather than of Dasein as the "clearing"; being has the initiative. Dasein's role in its receptive and nonmanipulative being at home with the things of its world is to be the "guardian" or "shepherd" of being.

Heidegger understood the actual disclosure of being as a temporal event, whose verbal nature may be captured by writing being as a verb, "be-ing." As "the shepherd of Being" therefore patiently carries out its task of "tending," be-ing may grant itself to human being as a gift. Thus the meditative thinking of being for which Heidegger appeals calls for "thanking." Nevertheless, in the light of being's initiative, Dasein can only wait for further disclosure of being. As time went on, Heidegger appeared to grow more pessimistic about the modern understanding of being. As he himself poetically put it in Poetry, Language, Thought, "We are too late for the gods and too early for Being." His understanding of the way being is always concealed even as it is revealed in beings and his insistence that authentic thinking always leads to what is unthinkable suggests that being will never be fully revealed. These emphases further underscore his thought as an anti-Cartesian philosophy characterized by fallibilism, finitud e, and ambiguity.

Heidegger's groping attempts to think and to speak the mystery of being in ways that run counter to traditional thinking and speaking are seen by some as profound reminders of the depth of reality that is lost to modern alienated technological society. Others see it as mere wordplay, as a kind of "word magic" that is an extreme example of confusion in language. Others do not resonate with his search for being but find him of immense help in understanding human beings as existential, historical, linguistic creatures who largely create their own reality. Conversely, some see him as a covert theologian or mystic. Some look to the earlier Heidegger, while others prefer the later Heidegger. These diverse appraisals of Heidegger are probably the predictable effect of one who never saw himself as having arrived but as simply "on the way." "Everything," he once wrote, "is way." In many ways his concern was not so much to give answers as to ask the right questions. He summed up this attitude, often frustrating to int erpreters, in An Introduction to Metaphysics: "To know how to question means to know how to wait, even a whole lifetime."

Further Reading

Caputo, John. The Mystical Element in Heidegger's Thought. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1978. An original interpretation of Heidegger in light of the influence of the German mystic Meister Eckhart that is especially illuminating of the later Heidegger. While appreciative of Heidegger, Caputo appeals for a rejuvenation of philosophy between calculative thinking and meditative thinking.

Grene, Marjorie. Martin Heidegger. Studies in Modern European Literature and Thought. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1957. An introduction that is appreciative of the earlier, existentialist Heidegger but extremely critical of the later Heidegger.

Kockelmans, Joseph J. Martin Heidegger: A First Introduction to His Philosophy. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1965. As the title indicates, this is an introduction with little critical analysis, but it is a helpful exposition, focusing on the earlier Heidegger, by one of the most able interpreters of continental phenomenological philosophy.

Langan, Thomas. The Meaning of Heidegger: A Critical Study of an Existentialist Phenomenology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959. An early standard, Langan's book introduces Heidegger in the context of the existentialist and phenomenological movements.

Lovitt, William, and Harriet Brundage Lovitt. Modern Technology in the Heideggerian Perspective. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991. Considers the theme of technology in the context of Heidegger's work. The authors argue convincingly that Heidegger maintains a single overarching perspective.

Macquarrie, John. Martin Heidegger Makers of Contemporary Theology. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1968. A very concise (62 pages) introduction to the earlier Heidegger by one of the translators of Being and Time.

Okrent, Mark. Heidegger's Pragmatism: Understanding, Being, and the Critique of Metaphysics. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988. An insightful critical analysis from the perspective of a philosopher in the analytic and pragmatic traditions, treating in detail both the earlier and later Heidegger.

Richardson, William J. Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought. Preface by Martin Heidegger. 3d ed. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974. An extensive exposition of the whole of Heidegger's thought that has become the standard, although Richardson tends to explain Heidegger by using Heidegger's own language rather than interpreting the language.

Sheehan, Thomas, ed. Heidegger: The Man and Thinker. Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1981. A collection of essays on various aspects of Heidegger's thought, including a rare biographical piece as well as an extensive bibliography of English translations of Heidegger's work and of secondary works on Heidegger.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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