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The Life and Philosophy of Martin Heidegger
The brilliant and notorious genius who birth the Continental Philosophical paradigm
Existentialism is a “movement” which like all such movements has a flabby periphery and a hard center. That center is the thought of Heidegger. To that thought alone existentialism owes its importance or intellectual respectability.
— Leo Strauss, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science and Political Philosophy”, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 2, no. 1 (1971)
The word “is”, is a stealthy term that slips its way into every nook and cranny of our language without the slightest notice on our part. For all this prominence, or perhaps because of this all-too-close nature, few people ever ask: what is is?
According to Martin Heidegger this is not just a forgetfulness on the part of you or me but of the entire Western philosophical tradition over the past two and a half thousand years. The question of Being has been utterly neglected since the work of Aristotle. Before Aristotle, in the primordial days of philosophy’s infancy, we find philosophers from Plato and Parmenides to Heraclitus and Anaximander asking this fundamental question.
After millennia of neglect, Martin Heidegger made it his life’s work to ask just this question. He called it the “Seinsfrage” — the question of Being — and his work in this field has earned him the reputation among professional philosophers as one of the most profound thinkers of the 20th century. He is the Wittgenstein of the Continental tradition.
He is one of the few Western philosophers to have quested into the Eastern traditions in search of what was missing in the West and he was also a lifelong Nazi. This concatenation of strange threads leaves us with an intellectually and ethically challenging tapestry to confront.
He was a philosopher beloved to Continental philosophers from the psychoanalytic thinker Jacques Lacan to Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida and more recently by the alt-right who find much of value in Heidegger’s deep philosophical defence of anti-modernist conservatism and nationalism.
In this instalment we are going to talk about who Heidegger was in all his philosophical and political shadings, we are going to talk about his masterpiece Being and Time, what he discovered about Being and why in his later years he argued that a poetic way of being could save us from the technological apocalypse we are currently being devoured by.
The Life of Heidegger
Martin Heidegger came from humble origins. Born in a quiet rural setting — the village of Messkirch in south-western Germany in 1889 — his father was a sexton at a Catholic church.
Against this humble backdrop, Heidegger’s exceptional intellect was recognised early and he received a scholarship to pursue his secondary education in the nearby town of Konstanz. As the son of a sexton and a man of intelligence it was written in the stars that Heidegger would become a priest and alongside his studies in secondary school and university, Heidegger trained at the Freiburg Jesuit Seminary.
After finishing in secondary school, Heidegger went to study theology at the University of Freiburg and it was during this time that Heidegger’s stone-written path took an undesigned twist.
The Swabian heartlands that Heidegger emerged from were more or less unchanged from the Medieval era. This was a conservative region rooted in a rural agrarian economy and dependant on static social hierarchies and long-established systems of land ownership, labour, religious lore and customs.
Freiburg in contrast, while still a provincial town, was part of a greater world — the world of modernity. There were major cities, time-compressing transport and telecommunications, industrialisation and mechanisation. It might as well have been a different planet to Heidegger’s Messkirch.
Two years into his theological studies, Heidegger abandoned his training for the priesthood and turned his university studies firstly to mathematics and then to philosophy. In this meandering path from theology to philosophy, the young Swabian was led onwards by his perennial problem: the Seinsfrage.
Heidegger’s studies continued until 1915 when he finished his thesis on the 14th-century Scholastic philosopher John Duns Scotus. This second half of the 20th century’s second decade was marked by a number of critical events in Heidegger’s life.
For a start the First World War was in full swing and Heidegger served on the front on three occasions between 1914 and 1915 for a total of ten weeks — each time interrupted by poor health. He later served for another ten months against the Americans on the Western front until the end of the war in November 1918.
It was also during this period, while Heidegger was just beginning to teach Catholic philosophy, that he had a crisis of faith. He met the Lutheran Elfriede Petri in the summer of 1916 and they were married in 1917. In January 1919 he renounced Catholicism.
And finally there was the arrival to Freiburg in 1916 of Edmund Husserl — the founder of Phenomenology who was already a major influence on Heidegger’s thought. From 1919 to 1923, Heidegger served as Husserl’s assistant. Phenomenology was ultimately the foundation of Heidegger’s brilliance. It was Husserl’s philosophy that provided the methodology that allowed the Swabian philosopher to pursue the Seinsfrage in a fruitful way.
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In 1923, Heidegger was offered a post as full lecturer in the University of Marburg which he accepted and it was in this time that his own Phenomenological study was free to evolve apart from Husserl.
By all accounts Heidegger was an incredible lecturer. The reserved and reticent country lad became something of a mystical personality. His student the great political philosophy Hannah Arendt later wrote that his subterranean reputation was like a “rumour of a hidden king.”
These years in Marburg culminated in Heidegger’s 1927 masterpiece Being and Time. On the back of Being and Time’s success and with Husserl’s retirement, Heidegger was offered the chair of philosophy at the University of Freiburg.
Five years later when the Nazis came to power, Heidegger became rector of the university from 1933-34. He was a devoted and outspoken believer in the National Socialist cause. There was much in the Germanic idolisation of the National Socialists that deeply gelled with Heidegger’s philosophy. He aspired to be the nation’s philosopher but his advances were rebuffed by the Nazi Party. By 1934 it was clear that Heidegger’s notions would come to nothing and so he stepped back from the position of rector. Despite this disappointment and the later censoring of his writing by the Nazis, Heidegger remained a member of the Nazi party until their defeat in 1945.
The Nazi period of Heidegger’s life is obviously an extremely controversial one. As his one-time student, the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas put it “One can forgive many Germans, but there are some Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger.”
Heidegger’s defence at the de-Nazification trials after the war was to call it a “pragmatic alliance”. But there was an unsettling trend of anti-Semitism and of nationalism that could not be so easily dismissed. His former student and lover, the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt who met Heidegger in private after the war and publicly announced that she forgave him, later said “Heidegger lies notoriously always and everywhere, and whenever he can.”
The extent of this affiliation with the Nazis and the significance of this for Heidegger’s philosophy as a whole has been a matter of intense debate in the decades since the Second World War.
The later philosophy of Heidegger took what scholars have called “the Turn” moving from the practical engagement in the world that we see in Being and Time towards an increasingly mystical detachment. Reason is demonised as “the most stiff-necked adversary of thought.” When asked, in a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, for some practical philosophical advice for a troubled age Heidegger responded that “Only a God can save us!”
After an enforced exile from the university on account of his association with the Nazi Party, Heidegger returned to teaching full-time at Freiburg from 1951 to 1958 and continued to give occasional lectures as late as 1967.
The majority of this later period of his life was spent at his beloved log cabin in the Black Forest — a key component of the Heidegger mythology. It’s the landscape out of which Heidegger’s philosophy evolved from its construction in 1922 right up until his death which came in 1976 at the age of 86.
It was a life lived in a small corner of the world and yet that life, through Heidegger’s acts and his thinking, interweaved and echoed through the darkest and grandest corners of the human endeavour.
The Early Heidegger
With that biographical context in place let’s talk about the three waves of Heidegger’s philosophy.
In his earliest theological studies and writings we can already see the foreshadowings of what is to come. Heidegger was far from an original thinker at this point but already we can see the concern with Being emerging.
Heidegger traces his awakening from his dogmatic slumber to his reading of a book on Aristotle’s conception of Being in 1907 at the age of 16. This was the book that stirred his interest in philosophy and his concern with Aristotle’s categorisation of Being was to prove a central concern in Being and Time.
Aristotle’s “theory of categories” divided being into two overarching categories. Everything that is can be divided into substances and attributes. A substance is what a thing is in itself - a tree, a star, a lamp. This is the central category of being. All other categories are attributes e.g. hot, large, bright, purple, malleable, poisonous or permeable. But with this categorisation of beings Aristotle had misplaced the question of Being in itself.
The early Heidegger’s work on thinkers like John Duns Scotus, was a study of the Medieval handling of this question. The Medieval school of Scholasticism found Aristotle’s account insufficient on account of God. For obvious reasons the Scholastics could not accept God as another being among beings. He was not simply the greater among substances and he was certainly not just another attribute.
The Scholastics, seeking a synthesis with Aristotle, instead argued that God rather than substance is the ground of Being; it is through God that all being comes to be and so he is something separate to and more fundamental than the other categories.
In time, Heidegger came to find this argument insufficient. It was still an evasion from the Seinsfrage. It still failed to ask the question of Being. And this is exactly what Heidegger sought to wrestle with in his mature works.
Being and Time
Being and Time is undoubtedly Heidegger’s magnum opus and one of the great masterpieces in the history of philosophy. Despite its almost complete opacity, the book has left a Heidegger-shaped crater in the humanities most notably in philosophy, psychology, literary theory and theology.
Heidegger’s task in Being and Time — as it was throughout his career — was to ask the question of Being that the philosophical tradition had forgotten.
In his quest to find the meaning of Being that applied to all beings Heidegger distinguished the ontic — i.e. the study of beings and their properties such as table, atom, purple or poisonous — from the ontological i.e. the study of the monolithic Being itself. The latter — the study of the strange beguiling fact that beings have existence at all — is according to Heidegger the proper domain of philosophy.
The sciences and most of philosophy are ontic — they are an attempt to accumulate “knowledge of particular entities, their characteristics, their relations to each other” and so on. But this fixation on beings and the ontic leads to a forgetting of the ontological — a forgetting of Being.
The ontic is studying the secondary field of beings but the ontological is studying what lies beneath and beyond all of these ontic entities: Being itself. This Being is not a being. It’s not an entity, a class of entities or some property of these entities. It is a thing unto itself. Any scientific study thus is downstream of this fundamental ontological work of philosophy.
The trouble of course insofar as the philosopher is concerned is that this ontological Being is pretty hard thing to approach. In his scathing dismissal of Heidegger’s work, the British analytic philosopher AJ Ayer wrote:
“The question of being? A senseless querying of what must be an absolute presupposition. If treated as a question there is no way of answer it”
Heidegger was not unaware of this difficulty. He decided that in order to approach this monolithic Being, he would have to make a detour. Being, he insisted, was always the being of something. So to study it he had to choose one of these somethings and analyse it. The something he chose was the human entity. And so the rabbit hole began.
For the rest of Being and Time, Heidegger immersed himself in a phenomenological exploration of the being of human individuals and, while he never did get back to his question of Being, this detour was to prove immensely valuable to the Continental philosophical tradition even if it ultimately left Heidegger unsatisfied.
If the 176k words of Being and Time could be reduced to a single term it would be Dasein. Dasein, is the specific nature of the being of humans. Being and Time is essentially one long phenomenological exploration of human being.
Dasein, which literally translated means “being-there”, is a seemingly humble term that packs one of the biggest punches in the history of philosophy.
Since the days of Descartes, there has been a fissure running through our sense of reality. With Descartes we have the emergence of the mind-body problem. For him mind and body are two completely different things; in his Meditations on First Philosophy he writes:
“I have a clear and distinct idea of the mind as a thinking, non-extended thing. I have a clear and distinct idea of body as an extended, non-thinking thing. Therefore, the mind is really distinct from the body and can exist without it.”
And with that fell swoop reality was divided between the mind and the body. This led to the philosophical schism between rationalism and empiricism that was healed (for the most part) by Kant but even with the work of the great Kant, the mind-body problem remained and reality was still divided.
Dasein is a one-word paradigm shift. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn talks about how when a paradigm shifts, the problems of the previous paradigm aren’t necessarily solved but rather they are dissolved — they cease to be problems, quite often they cease to even be sensible and they are forgotten.
Dasein does this to the mind-body problem. The hard boundary between subject and object is collapsed and in its stead we find Dasein.
Heidegger tells us that philosophers have been confused by objects seeing them, as he puts it “present-at-hand” whereas they are in fact more readily experienced as “ready-at-hand”. Our experience of other entities is not the detached contemplation of Descartes in his stove room inventing analytic geometry.
In 1913, Heidegger’s teacher Husserl noted this distinction in his studies of consciousness:
“I am in the world, it is continually ‘present’ for me: a world of facts, values and goods, a PRACTICAL world. Things stand there as objects to be used, the ‘table’ with its ‘books’, the ‘glass to drink from’, the ‘vase’, the ‘piano’, and so forth. It is to *this* world that I bring my comparing, counting, presupposing, inferring — the theorising activity of my consciousness.”
This Husserlian quote captures quite neatly the distinction between Descartes’ perspective and Heidegger’s Dasein. The theoretical detached contemplative mode is a secondary layer of consciousness. It is something we apply to the more accurate conception of human experience that is Dasein.
Dasein is inherently engaged with the everyday world as it goes about the business of being alive. This is a more accurate experience of our world — not Descartes contemplating the world geometrically alone in his stove room but humans going about their days interacting with their friends, family and colleagues, working at their computers or with the particular tools of their trade.
Dasein is right there in the world. There is no need for a bridge between the subject and the object because the being of humans is already dissolved in the world; it is swimming in it. The actual experience of being human is an experience of entanglement; we have practical involvements and commitments to other people and things in this world. We are tangled up in the world not knowing where it ends and we begin.
It takes Cartesian mental gymnastics to make it otherwise. It’s like studying an organism in isolation from its ecosystem; you might get a few interesting insights by reducing the complexity involved in the study but there is no sense in which you have understood the being of the organism because this being cannot be understood in isolation but only ecologically.
Being and Time is an exploration of this being-in-the-world of Dasein. In a future instalment we will do a deeper dive on Heidegger’s masterpiece and explore the nuances and the practical importance of this idea of Dasein — its Authentic and Inauthentic modes; its modes of connection with other people and its relationship with time and death.
While it ended up merely being a phase in Heidegger’s own intellectual experience Being and Time has had dramatic effects on the subsequent intellectual landscape. Where the rest of the culture has been deeply affected by this exploration and analysis of Dasein, Heidegger himself was dissatisfied and moved on.
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The Later Heidegger
After the publication of Being and Time, Heidegger’s thought underwent what has come to be known as “the Turn” and with this turning, the second half of Being and Time - which was to be called Time and Being, was abandoned and Heidegger’s philosophy entered a new, even more opaque phase.
Two themes central to the Later Heidegger are poetry and technology. These themes expand out in his later thinking and point to an apocalyptic moment in history we are facing today. There is a choice before us: the way of technology and the way of poetry.
Poetry here is not simply a style of writing that we contrast with prose. It is emblematic of a deeper conception of not just language but our relationship to the world that language mediates.
Heidegger’s ambivalent relationship with language was not new. Being and Time is famous for the number of new words that Heidegger coins. Like James Joyce, Heidegger finds it necessary to break the wheel of language in order to reach towards a new understanding.
The other great philosopher of the 20th century Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that “the limits of my language means the limits of my world”. Heidegger implicitly arrived at the same conclusion and so he sought to expand his language in order to expand his world. His task was to find a way of thinking being and a language in which to speak it. Heidegger is trying to get out of the way of the pathways that our language keeps guiding us into again and again. We are under a spell and Heidegger tries to reinvent the wheel in order to escape it.
Heidegger was not, despite what some Analytic philosophers believe, being deliberately obscurantist. He wasn’t writing in a dense language for his own entertainment. He was trying to bring about a transformation in the way that we think. This ties in with what he means by technology.
When Heidegger speaks about technology he’s not just talking about the instruments that have emerged from scientific innovation. Technology is a mode of relating to the world. Nature is reduced to nothing but so many resources for the machine. Everything from the minerals in the ground, plants, animals and even humans become what Heidegger calls “standing reserve” — they are resources to be exploited as means to an end.
In the cases where we do leave nature alone we speak of its potential for tourism. This perspective doesn’t stop at the natural world as we have seen. According to the travel site Expedia the biggest priority for young people booking holidays abroad is now how Instagrammable the destination is. Another commentator on Heidegger talks about how chatting to someone in a bar has become networking. Heidegger talks about how the remaining vestiges of nature are weighed by their tourist potential.
Technology for Heidegger then is not just tools and gadgets but the deeper mode or relating to reality that these tools are mere indicators of. Everything is now measured by its instrumental value; by its worth as a resource.
Over against this technological mode of relating, there is the poetic one. The technological mode relates to the river by building a hydroelectric dam or by turning it into a tourist attraction; in contrast we have Hölderlin’s poem The Rhine which appreciates the river for what it is; it relates poetically to nature.
Heidegger believes that there is a rot in modern civilisation. This is what he meant when he said that it did not matter who won the Second World War because whatever happened it was Technology that won. What Heidegger wants is a revolution in our mode of relating to not just nature but the entire domain that he calls “the Fourfold” which is made up of the skies, the earth, the divinities and of mortals.
This poetic theme also explains the turning in Heidegger’s thinking. In hindsight he found that the language of Being and Time was still too caught up in the technological mode; metaphysical language is still too distant and removed and so his later work enters into an even more idiosyncratic poetic mode that is less and less related to what we know as philosophy.
When asked in a 1966 interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel for some practical wisdom that philosophy might offer the troubled Zeitgeist, Heidegger’s reply was that “Only a God can save us!”
What Heidegger means by God here is not a divinity in the traditional sense but a secular return of sacredness. The God, whether that be a hero or a movement of some sort, is the one that will initiate the transformation of humanity’s relatedness to the world.
Heidegger believed that there was an inherent connection between this God and Germany. Heidegger was part of a tradition that believed the German language was special; only Greek was as special as German for its ability to transform the world.
Of course this is where we get into the weeds of Nazism again. It is easy to see how this emphasis on the importance of Germany — even if it is its language rather than its blood — got Heidegger swept up in the enthusiasm for the National Socialist party. Of course he would later come to see that the Nazis were just as caught up in the technological instrumentalisation of the world as any other power and in this sense at least he became disillusioned with them.
It’s a strange reason to turn against Nazism but the later Heidegger is anything but a commoner. In many ways the Swabian philosopher becomes more and more like the early Pre-Socratics that he so adored than he does a modern 20th century philosopher or person for that matter. In his later thinking he becomes less of a philosopher and more a prophet of Being uttering oracular formulations on the desperate apocalyptic moment facing humanity.