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German literature



Martin Heidegger

German philosopher

born September 26, 1889, Messkirch, Schwarzwald, Germany
died May 26, 1976, Messkirch, West Germany

German philosopher, counted among the main exponents of existentialism. His groundbreaking work in ontology and metaphysics determined the course of 20th-century philosophy on the European continent and exerted an enormous influence in virtually every other humanistic discipline, including literary criticism, hermeneutics, psychology, and theology.

Background and youth
The son of a Roman Catholic sexton, Heidegger showed an early interest in religion. Intending to become a priest, he began theological studies at the University of Freiburg in 1909 but switched to philosophy and mathematics in 1911. His interest in philosophy dated from at least 1907, however, when he undertook an intensive study of Von der mannigfachen Bedeutung des Seienden nach Aristoteles (1862; “On the Manifold Meaning of Being According to Aristotle”) by the 19th-century German philosopher Franz Brentano.

Brentano’s work in ontology helped to inspire Heidegger’s lifelong conviction that there is a single, basic sense of the verb “to be” that lies behind all its varied usages. From Brentano Heidegger also developed his enthusiasm for the ancient Greeks—especially the pre-Socratics. In addition to these philosophers, Heidegger’s work is obviously influenced by Plato, Aristotle, the Gnostic philosophers of the 2nd century ad, and several 19th- and early 20th-century thinkers, including the early figures of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche; Wilhelm Dilthey, who was noted for directing the attention of philosophers to the human and historical sciences; and Edmund Husserl, the founder of the phenomenological movement in philosophy.

While still in his 20s, Heidegger studied at Freiburg with Heinrich Rickert, the leading figure of the axiological school of neo-Kantianism, and with Husserl, who was then already famous. Husserl’s phenomenology, and especially his struggle against the intrusion of psychologism into traditionally philosophical studies of man, determined the background of the young Heidegger’s doctoral dissertation, Die Lehre vom Urteil im Psychologismus: Ein kritisch-positiver Beitrag zur Logik (“The Doctrine of Judgment in Psychologism: A Critical-Positive Contribution to Logic”; 1914). Consequently, what Heidegger later said and wrote about anxiety, thinking, forgetfulness, curiosity, distress, care, and awe was not meant as psychology; and what he said about man, publicness, and other-directedness was not intended to be sociology, anthropology, or political science. His utterances were meant to disclose ways of Being.

Heidegger began teaching at the University of Freiburg during the winter semester of 1915 and wrote his habilitation thesis on the 13th-century English Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus. As a colleague of Husserl, Heidegger was expected to carry the phenomenological movement forward in the spirit of his former master. As a religiously inclined young man, however, he went his own way instead. While serving as a professor ordinarius at Marburg University (1923–28), he astonished the German philosophical world with Being and Time (1927). Although almost unreadable, it was immediately felt to be of prime importance, whatever its relation to Husserl might be. In spite of—and perhaps partly because of—its intriguingly difficult style, Being and Time was acclaimed as a masterpiece not only in German-speaking countries but also in Latin ones, where phenomenology was well established. It strongly influenced Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialists in France, and on the basis of this work Heidegger came to be regarded as the leading atheistic existentialist, though he always rejected that label. The reception of Being and Time in the English-speaking world was chilly, however, and its influence there was negligible for several decades.

Heidegger’s declared purpose in Being and Time is to show what it means for a person to be—or, more accurately, how it is for a person to be. This task leads to a more fundamental question: what does it mean to ask, “What is the meaning of Being?” These questions lie behind the obviousness of everyday life and, therefore, also behind the empirical questions of natural science. They are usually overlooked, because they are too near to everyday life to be grasped. One might say that Heidegger’s entire prophetic mission amounts to making each person ask this question with maximum involvement. Whether one arrives at a definite answer is, in the present crisis of mankind, of secondary importance.

This crisis, according to Heidegger, stems from the deep “fall” (Verfall) of Western thought since the time of Plato, a condition brought about by the one-sided development of technological thinking and the neglect of other kinds, resulting in alienation (Entfremdung)—or, as expressed in terms more central to Heidegger’s thought, in a “highly inauthentic way of being.” Although fallenness, or inauthenticity, is an inescapable feature of human existence—i.e., it is an existential, and an essential, potentiality (Möglichkeit)—epochs and individuals may be coloured by it in different degrees. This somewhat stern outlook was mitigated in Heidegger’s later writings, in which he suggested that it is possible to find a kind of “redemption” through “thinking of Being”—a process that would be led, he believed, by the continental European countries rather than the eastern or other western ones.

As an aid in the effort to get back to “thinking of Being” and its redemptive effects, Heidegger employs linguistic, or hermeneutical, techniques. He develops his own German, his own Greek, and his own etymologies—for example, he coins about 100 new complex words ending with “-being.” In reading his works one must, therefore, translate many key terms back into Greek and then consider his free, often special (but never uninteresting) interpretations and etymologies.

The wealth of ideas in Being and Time is best discussed in conjunction with those developed in another, shorter work, What Is Metaphysics? (1929), which was originally delivered as an inaugural lecture when Heidegger succeeded Husserl at Freiburg in 1928. As Heidegger learned from Husserl, it is the phenomenological and not the scientific method that unveils man’s ways of Being. Thus, in pursuing this method, Heidegger comes into conflict with the dichotomy of the subject-object relation, which has traditionally implied that man, as knower, is something (some-thing) within an environment that is against him. This relation, however, must be transcended. The deepest knowing, on the contrary, is a matter of phainesthai (Greek: “to show itself” or “to be in the light”), the word from which phenomenology, as a method, is derived. Something is just “there” in the light. Thus, the distinction between subject and object is not immediate but comes only later through conceptualization, as in the sciences.

Man stands out from things (ex-sists, not merely ex-ists), says Heidegger in Being and Time, never being completely absorbed by them but nevertheless being nothing (no-thing) apart from them. Man dwells in a world that he has been, and continues to be, “thrown into” until death. Being thrown into things, being-there (Da-sein), he falls away (Verfall) and is on the point of being submerged into things. He is continually a pro-ject (Ent-wurf); but periodically, or even normally, he may be submerged in things to such a degree that he is temporarily absorbed (Aufgehen in). He is then nobody in particular; and a structure that Heidegger calls das Man (“the they”) is revealed, recalling certain Anglo-American sociological criticisms of modern industrial society that stress man’s “other-directedness”—i.e., his tendency to measure himself in terms of his peers. But Heidegger’s phenomenological metaphors avoid the concepts of social science as much as possible in favour of the concepts of ontology. Characteristic of das Man are idle talk (Gerede) and curiosity (Neugier). In Gerede, talker and listener do not stand in any genuine personal relation or in any intimate relation to what is talked about; hence, it leads to shallowness. Curiosity is a form of distraction, a need for the “new,” a need for something “different,” without real interest or capability of wonder.

But there is a mood, anxiety or dread (Angst), that functions to disclose (dis-close) authentic being, freedom (Frei-sein), as a potentiality. It manifests the freedom of man to choose himself and take hold of himself. The relevance of time, of the finiteness of human existence, is then experienced as a freedom to meet one’s own death (das Freisein für den Tod), as a preparedness for and a continuous relatedness to death (Sein zum Tode). In anxiety, all entities (Seiendes) sink away into a “nothing and nowhere,” and man hovers in himself as ex-sisting, being nowhere at home (Un-heimlichkeit, Un-zu-hause). He faces no-thing-ness (das Nichts); and all average, obvious everydayness disappears—and this is good, since he now faces the potentiality of authentic being.

Thus, for Heidegger the “sober” (nüchtern) anxiety and the implied confrontation with death are primarily of methodological importance, because through them fundamental structures are revealed. Among them are potentialities for being joyfully active (“. . . knowing joy [die wissende Heiterkeit] is a door to the eternal”). Anxiety opens man up to Being. This does not imply that Being partakes in the dark aspect of dread, however; Being is associated with “light” and with “the joyful” (das Heitere). Being “calls the tune”; “to think Being” is to arrive at one’s (true) home. Although Heideggerian students are often baffled by just what Being and Thinking stand for, it is clear that Heidegger opposes a cult of mankind and wishes to call attention to something greater.

In the early 1930s Heidegger’s thought underwent a change that scholars call his Kehre (“turning around”). Although some specialists regard the Kehre as a turning away from the central problem of Being and Time, Heidegger himself denied this, insisting that he had been asking the same basic question since his youth. Nevertheless, in his later years he clearly became more reluctant to offer an answer, or even to indicate a way in which an answer might be found.

Heidegger and Nazism
In the months after the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany in January 1933, German universities came under increasing pressure to support the “national revolution” and to eliminate Jewish scholars and the teaching of “Jewish” doctrines, such as the theory of relativity. After the rector of Freiburg resigned to protest these policies, the university’s teaching staff elected Heidegger as his successor in April 1933. One month later, Heidegger became a member of the Nazi Party, and until he resigned as rector in April 1934 he helped to institute Nazi educational and cultural programs at Freiburg and vigorously promoted the domestic and foreign policies of the Nazi regime. Already during the late 1920s he had criticized the dissolute nature of the German university system, where “specialization” and the ideology of “academic freedom” precluded the attainment of a higher unity. In a letter of 1929, he bemoaned the progressive “Jewification” (Verjudung) of the German spirit. In his inaugural address, Die Selbstbehauptung der deutschen Universität (“The Self-Assertion of the German University”), he called for reorganizing the university along the lines of the Nazi Führerprinzip, or leadership principle, and celebrated the fact that university life would henceforward be merged with the state and the needs of the German Volk. During the first month of his rectorship, he sent a telegram to Hitler urging him to postpone an upcoming meeting of university rectors until Gleichschaltung—the Nazi euphemism for the elimination of political opponents—had been completed. In the fall of 1933, Heidegger began a speaking tour on behalf of Hitler’s national referendum to withdraw Germany from the League of Nations. As he proclaimed in one speech: “Let not doctrines and ideas be your guide. The Führer is Germany’s only reality and law.” Heidegger continued to support Hitler in the years after his rectorship, though with somewhat less enthusiasm than he had shown in 1933–34.

At the end of the war in 1945, a favourably disposed university de-Nazification commission found Heidegger guilty of having “consciously placed the great prestige of his scholarly reputation … in the service of the National Socialist Revolution,” and he was banned from further teaching. (The ban was lifted in 1950.) In later years, despite pleas from friends and associates to disavow publicly his Nazi past, Heidegger declined to do so. Instead, in his own defense, he preferred to cite a maxim from the French poet Paul Valéry: “He who thinks greatly must err greatly.” In his book Introduction to Metaphysics, published in 1953, Heidegger retrospectively praised “the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism.”

Beginning in the 1980s, there was considerable controversy among Heidegger scholars regarding the alleged connection between Heidegger’s philosophy and his political views in the 1930s and ’40s. Were there affinities between Heidegger’s philosophical thought, or his style of philosophizing, and the totalitarian ideals of the Nazis? Supporters of Heidegger, repeating a view prominent in the first decades after the war, argued that there was nothing inherently fascistic in his philosophy and that claims to the contrary grossly distorted his work. Opponents, on the other hand, cited parallels between the critical treatment in Being and Time of notions such as “publicness,” “everydayness,” “idle talk,” and “curiosity” and fascist-oriented critiques of the vapidity and dissoluteness of bourgeois liberalism. They also pointed to more specific similarities evident in Division II of Being and Time, in which Heidegger emphasizes the centrality of the Volk as a historical actor and the importance of “choosing a hero,” an idea widely promoted among the German right as the Führerprinzip. For these scholars, Heidegger’s philosophical critique of the condition of man in modern technological society allowed him to regard the Nazi revolution as a deliverance that would make the world “safe for Being.” Among those who shared this view were the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers, who wrote in a letter to the head of the de-Nazification commission that “Heidegger’s manner of thinking, which to me seems in its essence unfree, dictatorial, and incapable of communication, would today be disastrous in its pedagogical effects.”

Heidegger’s thought has been faulted on other grounds as well. Some have suggested that his phenomenological method rests on a grandiose illusion, and that the search for “thinking Being” is merely a disguised quest for a kind of belief in God. In the same vein, others have charged that Heidegger’s abstruse terminology is only a mask disguising and mystifying a more traditional approach to philosophy. Such negative evaluations, if joined with a sincere attempt to follow Heidegger’s own path through his writings, would not be incompatible with his thought. After all, he asks—or rather, provokes—his readers to question, not to listen to answers. It is, therefore, misleading to present Heidegger’s philosophy as a set of clearly understandable results. His metaphors must remain, rather than be translated into the usual philosophical terminology that he rejected.

Arne D. Naess
Richard Wolin



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