Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976)


Martin HeideggerMartin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) was a 20th Century German philosopher. He was one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th Century, but also one of the most controversial. His best known book, “Being and Time”, although notoriously difficult, is generally considered to be one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th Century.

His outspoken early support for the Fascist Nazi regime in Germany has to some extent obscured and tainted his significance, but his work has exercised a deep influence on philosophy, theology and the humanities, and was key to the development of Phenomenology, Existentialism, Deconstructionism, Post-Modernism, and Continental Philosophy in general.


Heidegger (pronounced HIE-de-ger) was born on 26 September 1889 in Messkirchin rural southern Germany, to a poor Catholic family. He was the son of the sextonof the village church, and was raised a Roman Catholic. Even as a child, he was clearly a strong and charismatic personality, despite his physical frailty. In 1903, he went to the high school in Konstanz, where the church supported him by a scholarship, and then moved to the Jesuit seminary at Freiburg in 1906. His early introduction to philosophy came with his reading of “On the Manifold Meaning of Being according to Aristotle” by the philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano (1838 – 1917).

In 1909, after completing high school, he became a Jesuit novice, but was discharged within a month for reasons of health. From 1909 to 1911, he started to study theology at the University of Freiburg, but then broke off his training for the priesthood and switched to studying philosophy, mathematics, and natural sciences. He completed his doctoral thesis on psychologism in 1914, before joining the German army briefly at the start of World War I, (he was released after two months, again due to health reasons). While working as an unsalaried associate professor at the University of Freiburg, teaching mostly courses in Aristotelianism and Scholastic philosophy, he earned his habilitation with a thesis on the medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus in 1916.

In 1916, he came to know personally the Phenomenologist Edmund Husserl who had joined the Freiburg faculty, and who took the promising young Heidegger under his wing. In 1917, he married Elfriede Petri, an attractive economics student and Protestant with known anti-Semitic views, who would remain at his side for the rest of his life, despite the very “open” nature of the marriage. In 1918, though, he was again called up for military duty, and, although he managed to avoid front-line service for as long as possible, he did serve as an army meteorologist near the western front during the last three months of the war. Elfriede bore their first son Jörg in 1919; another son, Hermann, was probably extramarital.

After the end of the War, in 1918, he broke definitively with Catholicism, and returned to Freiburg as a (salaried) senior assistant to Husserl until 1923. He did not approve of Husserl’s later developments, however, and soon began to radically reinterpret his Phenomenology. In 1923, he was elected to an extraordinary professorship in Philosophy at the University of Marburg, although whenever he could he made his way back to his “spiritual home” deep in the Black Forest, and he maintained a simple rustic cabin there for the rest of his life. During his time at Marburg, he had extramarital affairs with at least two of his students, Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) and Elisabeth Blochmann (1892 – 1972), both philosophers in their own right, and both Jewish (Arendt was later to achieve world fame through her commentaries on the evils of Nazism).

In 1927, he published “Sein und Zeit” (“Being and Time”), his first publication since 1916, which soon became recognized as a truly epoch-making work of 20th Century philosophy. The book made Heidegger famous almost overnight and was widely read by educated men and women throughout Germany. It earned him a full professorship at Marburg and, soon after, on Husserl’s retirement from teaching in 1928, the chair of philosophy at Freiburg University (which he accepted, in spite of a counter-offer by Marburg). He remained at Freiburg for most of the rest of his life, declining offers from other universities, including one from the prestigious University of Berlin. Among his students at Freiburg were Herbert Marcuse(1898 – 1979), Ernst Nolte (1923 – ) and Emmanuel Levinas (1906 – 1995).

With Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Heidegger (who had previously shown little interest in politics) joined the Nazi party, and was elected Rector of the University of Freiburg (his inaugural address, the “Rektoratsrede”, has become notorious). During this period, he not only cooperated with the educational policies of the National Socialist government, but also offered it his enthusiastic public support, helping to legitimize the Nazi regime with his own worldwide prestige and influence. One of the most prominent victims of his malicious, and often unfounded, denunciations was the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Hermann Staudinger. Heidegger technically resigned his position at Freiburg in 1934, and took a much less overtly political position thereafter, although he remained a member of the academic faculty and he retained his Nazi party membership until it was disbanded the end of World War II (despite some covert criticism of Nazi ideology and even a period of time under the surveillance of the Gestapo).

During the later 1930s and 1940s (sometimes referred to as “the turn”), his writings became less systematic and often more obscure, and he developed a preoccupation with the question of language, a fascination with poetry, a concern with modern technology, as well as a new-found respect for the early Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. He himself always denied any “turn”, arguing that it was simply a matter of going yet more deeply into the same matters.

At the end of the War, Heidegger returned to Freiburg to face the accusations of the French occupying force and the University’s own denazification commission. He was summarily dismissed from his philosophy chair because of alleged Nazi sympathies, and forbidden from teaching in Germany from 1945 to 1951 by the French Occupation Authority. Despite his apparent lack of remorse, the ban hit Heidegger hard, and he spent some time in a sanatorium after a suicide attempt. When the ban was lifted in 1951, he became Professor emeritus at Freiburg and taught regularly until 1958, and then by invitation until 1967. With the support of some unlikely allies, such as the Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialists, and, perhaps most puzzling of all, his Jewish ex-lover Hannah Arendt, he was almost completely rehabilitated as a major philosophical figure during Germany’s Era of Reconstruction after the War, although he never spoke out or publicly apologized for his war-time activities.

During the last three decades of his life, he continued to write and publish, although there was little significant change in his underlying philosophy. He divided his time between his home in Freiburg, his second study in Messkirch, and his isolated mountain hut at Todtnauberg on the edge of the Black Forest, which he considered the best environment in which to engage in philosophical thought.

Heidegger died on 26 May 1976, and was buried in the Messkirch cemetery.


Heidegger’s writings are notoriously difficult and idiosyncratic, indulging in extended word play, employing his own spelling, vocabulary and syntax, and inventing new words for complex concepts. This was partly because he was discussing very specifically defined concepts (which he used in a very rigorousand consistent way) but it does make reading and understanding his work very difficult.

“Sein und Zeit” (“Being and Time”), published in 1927, was his first significant academic work, and is considered by most to be his most important and influential work. It is a tour de force of philosophical reasoning, and all but hammered home the last nail in the coffin of the popular Phenomenology movement of his one-time teacher and mentor, Edmund Husserl. Husserl was entirely convinced that he had discovered the undisputable truth of how to approach philosophy, and it was this (essentially Husserl’s – and Descartes’s before him – view of man as a subject confronted by objects) that Heidegger reacted against.

Heidegger completely rejected the approach of most philosophers since Descartes, who had been trying to prove the existence of the external world. More specifically, his rejection of Phenomenology came when he considered specific concrete examples in which the phenomenological subject-object relation appears to break down. One such example was that of an expert carpenter hammering nails, where, when everything is going well, the carpenter does not have to concentrate on the hammer or even the nail, and the objects become essentially transparent (what Heidegger called “ready to hand”). Similarly, when we enter a room, we turn the door knob, but this is such a basic and habitual action that it does not even enter our consciousness.

Thus, it is only really when something goes wrong (e.g. the hammer is too heavy, the door knob sticks) that we need to become rational, problem-solving beings. The existence of hammers and door knobs only has any significance and only makes any sense at all in the whole social context of wood, houses, construction, etc (what Heidegger called “being in the world”).

Heidegger’s main concern was always ontology or the study of being and, in “Being and Time”, he asked the deceptively simple question “what is ‘being’?”, what is actually meant by the verb ‘to be’. His answer was to distinguish what it is for beings to be beings (“Sein”) from the existence of entities in general (“Seindes”), and concentrating on the being for whom a description of experience might actually matter, the being for whom “being” is a question, the being engaged in the world (“Dasein”). He further argued that time and human existence were inextricably linked, and that we as humans are always looking ahead to the future. Thus, he argued, being is really just a process of becoming, leading him to totally reject the Aristotelian idea of a fixed human essence.

Although Heidegger’s initial analysis of humans as Dasein makes them sound rather like zombie-like beings moulded by society and culture and merely reacting to events, he then introduced the concept of authenticity. He made a sharp distinction between farmers and rural workers, whom he considered to have an instinctive grasp of their own humanity, and city dwellers, who he described as leading inauthentic lives, out of touch with their own individuality, which in turn causes anxiety. This anxiety is our response to the apparently arbitrary cultural rules under which we, as Dasein, become accustomed to living out our lives, and Heidegger says that there are two responses we can choose: we can flee the anxiety by conforming even more closely to the rules (inauthenticity); or face up to it, carrying on with daily life, but, crucially, without any expectation of any deep final meaning (authenticity). The latter approach allows us to respond to unique situations in an individual way (although still within the confines of social norms), and this was Heidegger’s idea of how one should live. For Heidegger, this acceptance of how things are in the real world, however limiting it may be, is itself liberating.

Although often considered a founder of Existentialism, (mainly because his discussion of ontology is rooted in an analysis of the mode of existence of individual human beings), Heidegger vehemently rejected the association, just as he had rejected Husserl’s Phenomenology. However, his works such as “Being and Time” and “What is Metaphysics?” were certainly a big influence on Jean-Paul Sartre (and especially on his “Being and Nothingness”, the title of which is a direct allusion to Heidegger’s “Being and Time”).

For Heidegger, genuine philosophy can not avoid confronting questions of languageand meaning, and he maintained that the description of Dasein could only be carried out in terminology inherited from the history and tradition of Western philosophy itself. Thus, he saw “Being and Time” as just a first step in his grand overall project, which was to be followed by what he called the “destruction” of the history of philosophy (a retracing of philosophy’s footsteps, and a transformation of its language and meaning). However, he never completed this second step, as he began to radially re-think his own views.

While his earlier work (essentially “Being and Time”) was conceived as a very definite analysis of being which applied to all humans anywhere at any time, he later realized that the time or period in which people live fundamentally affects the way they live their lives. For instance, the ancient Greeks were much more rooted than moderns, and they had a much more naturalistic worldview; the medieval Christians believed that they were created creatures and that God’s plan for the world could be discerned; modern society, on the other hand, sees itself as comprised of active subjects with desires to satisfy, and other objects were to be made use of. These different worldviews, therefore, create quite different understandings of just what it is to be.

After the World War II, and Heidegger’s so-called “turn”, then, Heidegger began to write of the commencement of the history of Western philosophy, the Pre-Socratic period of Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Anaximander, as a brief period of authentic openness to being. This was followed, according to Heidegger, by a long period, beginning with Plato, increasingly dominated by the forgetting or abandonment of this initial openness, occurring in different ways throughout Western history.

Although he had, at first, considered anxiety to be a universal experience, he realized that the Greeks did not experience it, and, for different reasons, neither did the medieval Christians. Modern society, however, with its technological, nihilistic understanding of being, leads to the kind of rootlessness and distress which causes anxiety. So, Heidegger believed that anxiety is very much a modern disease. Furthermore, he believed that modernity is a unique epoch of history in that we have an awareness of history itself, and we have essentially come to the end of philosophy, having tried out and discarded all the possible permutations of philosophical thought (what Heidegger described as Nihilism).

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), “Einführung in die Metaphysik” (“An Introduction to Metaphysics”, 1953), “Die Frage nach der Technik” (“The Question Concerning Technology”, 1954), “Was heisst Denken?” (“What Is Called Thinking?”, 1954), “Was ist das – die Philosophie?” (“What Is Philosophy?”, 1956), “Unterwegs zur Sprache” (“On the Way to Language”, 1959) and “The End of Philosophy” (1964).

Language, always a major concern of Heidegger, became almost an obsession in his later work. In his view, language was not an arbitrary construct; nor was was it invented merely to correspond to, or describe, the outside world. For Heidegger, vocabulary (a sell as metaphors, idioms and the whole construction of language), actively names things into being, and can have a powerful and proactive effect on the world. For him, then, it was the poets, not the philosophers, priests or scientists, who were the vanguard of humanity and its hope for future development.


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