Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was a German philosopher whose work is perhaps most readily associated with phenomenology and existentialism, although his thinking should be identified as part of such philosophical movements only with extreme care and qualification. His ideas have exerted a seminal influence on the development of contemporary European philosophy. They have also had an impact far beyond philosophy, for example in architectural theory, literary criticism, theology, psychotherapy and cognitive science.
Martin Heidegger was born in Messkirch, Germany, on September 26, 1889. Messkirch was then a quiet, conservative, religious rural town, and as such was a formative influence on Heidegger and his philosophical thought. In 1909 he spent two weeks in the Jesuit order before leaving (probably on health grounds) to study theology at the University of Freiburg. In 1911 he switched subjects, to philosophy. He began teaching at Freiburg in 1915. In 1917 he married Elfride Petri, with whom he had two sons (Jörg and Hermann) and from whom he never parted (although his affair with the philosopher Hannah Arendt, his student at Marburg in the 1920s, is well-known).
Heidegger's philosophical development began when he read Brentano and Aristotle, plus the latter's medieval scholastic interpreters. Indeed, Aristotle's demand in the Metaphysics to know what it is that unites all possible modes of Being (or ‘is-ness’) is, in many ways, the question that ignites and drives Heidegger's philosophy. From this platform he proceeded to engage deeply with Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and, perhaps most importantly of all for his subsequent thinking in the 1920s, two further figures: Dilthey (whose stress on the role of interpretation and history in the study of human activity profoundly influenced Heidegger) and Husserl (whose understanding of phenomenology as a science of essences he was destined to reject). In 1915 Husserl took up a post at Freiburg and in 1919 Heidegger became his assistant. Heidegger spent a period (of reputedly brilliant) teaching at the University of Marburg (1923–1928), but then returned to Freiburg to take up the chair vacated by Husserl on his retirement. Out of such influences, explorations, and critical engagements, Heidegger's magnum opus, Being and Time(Sein und Zeit) was born. Although Heidegger's academic and intellectual relationship with his Freiburg predecessor was complicated and occasionally strained (see Crowell 2005), Being and Time was dedicated to Husserl, “in friendship and admiration”.
Published in 1927, Being and Time is standardly hailed as one of the most significant texts in the canon of (what has come to be called) contemporary European (or Continental) Philosophy. It catapulted Heidegger to a position of international intellectual visibility and provided the philosophical impetus for a number of later programmes and ideas in the contemporary European tradition, including Sartre's existentialism, Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics, and Derrida's notion of ‘deconstruction’. Moreover, although most philosophers in the Anglo-American (Analytic) tradition remain apprehensive about a work that can seem to have arrived from some distant intellectual shore, that particular climate of suspicion now seems significantly less entrenched than it once did. This shift in reception is in no small way due to the way in whichBeing and Time, and indeed Heidegger's philosophy in general, has been presented and engaged with by thinkers such as Dreyfus and Rorty who work somewhere near the interface between the two traditions.
In 1933 Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and was elected Rector of Freiburg University, where, depending on whose account one believes, he either enthusiastically implemented the Nazi policy of bringing university education into line with Hitler's nauseating political programme or he allowed that policy to be officially implemented while conducting a partially underground campaign of resistance to some of its details, especially its anti-Semitism. During the short period of his rectorship—he resigned in 1934—Heidegger gave a number of public speeches in which Nazi images plus occasional declarations of support for Hitler are integrated with the philosophical language of Being and Time. After 1934 Heidegger became increasingly distanced from Nazi politics. Although he didn't leave the Nazi party, he did attract some unwelcome attention from its enthusiasts. After the war, however, a university denazification committee at Freiburg investigated Heidegger and banned him from teaching, a right which he did not get back until 1949. One year later he was made professor Emeritus. Against this background of contrary information, one will search in vain through Heidegger's later writings for the sort of total and unambiguous repudiation of National Socialism that one might hope to find.
After Being and Time there is a reorienting shift in Heidegger's philosophy known as ‘the turn’ (die Kehre). Exactly when this occurs is a matter of debate, although it is probably safe to say that it is in progress by 1930 and largely established by the early 1940s. If dating the turn has its problems, saying exactly what it involves is altogether more challenging. Indeed, Heidegger himself characterized it not as a turn in his own thinking but as a turn in Being. As he later put it in a preface he wrote to Richardson's ground-breaking text on his work, the “Kehre is at work within the issue [that is named by the titles ‘Being and Time’/‘Time and Being.’]… It is not something that I did, nor does it pertain to my thinking only”. The core elements of the turn are indicated in what is now considered by many commentators to be Heidegger's second greatest work, Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), (Beitrage zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis)). This uncompromising text was written in 1936–7, but was not published in German until 1989 and not in English translation until 1999.
Being and Time is a long and complex book. The reader is struck by the “tortured intensity of [Heidegger's] prose”, although if the text is read in its original German it is possible to hear the vast number of what appear to be neologisms as attempts to reanimate the German language. According to this latter gloss, the linguistic constructions concerned—which involve hyphenations, unusual prefixes and uncommon suffixes—reveal the hidden meanings and resonances of ordinary talk. In any case, for many readers, the initially strange and difficult language of Being and Time is fully vindicated by the realization that Heidegger is struggling to say things for which our conventional terms and linguistic constructions are ultimately inadequate. Indeed, for some thinkers who have toiled in its wake, Heidegger's language becomes the language of philosophy. Viewed from the perspective of Heidegger's own intentions, the work is incomplete. It was meant to have two parts, each of which was supposed to be divided into three divisions. What we have published under the title ofBeing and Time are the first two divisions of (the intended) part one.
One might reasonably depict the earliest period of Heidegger's philosophical work, in Freiburg (1915–23) and Marburg (1923–6), before he commenced the writing of Being and Time itself, as the pre-history of that seminal text. Viewed in relation to Being and Time, the central philosophical theme in these early years is Heidegger's complex critical relationship with Husserl's transcendental phenomenology— which can be seen as “a dynamic of attraction and repulsion”—as driven by Heidegger's transformative reading of Aristotle. As early as a 1919 lecture course, for example, we find Heidegger arguing that Husserl's view, that philosophy should renounce theory and concentrate on the things given directly in consciousness, is flawed because such givenness is itself a theoretical construct. For the young Heidegger, then, it is already the case that phenomenological analysis starts not with Husserlian intentionality (the consciousness of objects), but rather with an interpretation of the pre-theoretical conditions for there to be such intentionality. This idea will later be central to, and elaborated within, Being and Time, by which point a number of important developments will have occurred in Heidegger's thinking: the Husserlian notion of formal ontology (the study of the a priori categories that describe objects of any sort, by means of our judgments and perceptions) will have been transformed intofundamental ontology (a neo-Aristotelian search for what it is that unites and makes possible our varied and diverse senses of what it is to be); Husserl's transcendental consciousness (the irreducible thinking ego or subject that makes possible objective inquiry) will have been transfigured into Dasein (the inherently social being who already operates with a pre-theoretical grasp of the a priori structures that make possible particular modes of Being); and Husserlian intentionality (a consciousness of objects) will have been replaced by the concept of care orBeing-in-the-world (a non-intentional, or perhaps pre-intentional, openness to a world).
Each of these aspects of Heidegger's framework in Being and Time emerges out of his radical rethinking of Aristotle, a rethinking that finds its fullest and most explicit expression in a 1925–6 lecture course entitled Logik (later renamed Logik (Aristoteles) by Heidegger's student Helene Weiß, in order to distinguish this lecture course from a later one he gave also entitled Logik. On Heidegger's interpretation, Aristotle holds that since every meaningful appearance of beings involves an event in which a human being takes a being aswhat unites all the different modes of Being is that they realize some form of presence (present-ness) to human beings. This presence-to is expressed in the ‘as’ of ‘taking-as’. Thus the unity of the different modes of Being is grounded in a capacity for taking-as (making-present-to) that Aristotle argues is the essence of human existence. Heidegger's response, in effect, is to suggest that although Aristotle is on the right track, he has misconceived the deep structure of taking-as. For Heidegger, taking-as is grounded not in multiple modes of presence, but rather in a more fundamental temporal unity that characterizes Being-in-the-world (care). This engagement with Aristotle—the Aristotle, that is, that Heidegger unearths during his early years in Freiburg and Marburg—explains why “Aristotle appears directly or indirectly on virtually every page” of Being and Time.
One might think that an unpalatable relativism is entailed by any view which emphasizes that understanding is never preconception-free. But that would be too quick. Of course, if authentic Dasein were individualized in the sense of being a self-sufficient Cartesian subject, then perhaps an extreme form of subjectivist relativism would indeed beckon. Fortunately, however, authentic Dasein isn't a Cartesian subject, in part because it has a transformed and not a severed relationship with the ‘they’. This reconnects us with our earlier remark that the philosophical framework advocated within Being and Time appears to mandate a kind of cultural relativism.
After Being and Time there is a shift in Heidegger's thinking that he himself christened ‘the turn’ (die Kehre). In a 1947 piece, in which Heidegger distances his views from Sartre's existentialism, he links the turn to his own failure to produce the missing divisions of Being and Time.
The adequate execution and completion of this other thinking that abandons subjectivity is surely made more difficult by the fact that in the publication of Being and Time the third division of the first part, “Time and Being,” was held back… Here everything is reversed. The division in question was held back because everything failed in the adequate saying of this turning and did not succeed with the help of the language of metaphysics… This turning is not a change of standpoint from Being and Time, but in it the thinking that was sought first arrives at the location of that dimension out of which Being and Time is experienced, that is to say, experienced from the fundamental experience of the oblivion of Being. (Letter on Humanism, pp. 231–2)
Notice that while, in the turning, “everything is reversed”, nevertheless it is “not a change of standpoint from Being and Time”, so what we should expect from the later philosophy is a pattern of significant discontinuities with Being and Time, interpretable from within a basic project and a set of concerns familiar from that earlier text. The quotation from the Letter on Humanism provides some clues about what to look for. Clearly we need to understand what is meant by the abandonment of subjectivity, what kind of barrier is erected by the language of metaphysics, and what is involved in the oblivion of Being. The second and third of these issues will be clarified later. The first bears immediate comment.
At root Heidegger's later philosophy shares the deep concerns of Being and Time, in that it is driven by the same preoccupation with Being and our relationship with it that propelled the earlier work. In a fundamental sense, then, the question of Being remains the question. However, Being and Time addresses the question of Being via an investigation of Dasein, the kind of being whose Being is an issue for it. As we have seen, this investigation takes the form of a transcendental hermeneutic phenomenology that begins with ordinary human experience. It is arguable that, in at least one important sense, it is this philosophical methodology that the later Heidegger is rejecting when he talks of his abandonment of subjectivity. Of course, as conceptualized in Being and Time, Dasein is not a Cartesian subject, so the abandonment of subjectivity is not as simple as a shift of attention away from Dasein and towards some other route to Being. Nevertheless the later Heidegger does seem to think that his earlier focus on Dasein bears the stain of a subjectivity that ultimately blocks the path to an understanding of Being. This is not to say that the later thinking turns away altogether from the project of transcendental hermeneutic phenomenology. The project of illuminating the a priori conditions on the basis of which entities show up as intelligible to us is still at the heart of things. What the later thinking involves is a reorientation of the basic project so that, as we shall see, the point of departure is no longer a detailed description of ordinary human experience.
A further difficulty in getting to grips with Heidegger's later philosophy is that, unlike the early thought, which is heavily centred on a single text, the later thought is distributed over a large number and range of works, including books, lecture courses, occasional addresses, and presentations given to non-academic audiences. So one needs a navigational strategy. The strategy adopted here will be to view the later philosophy through the lens of Heidegger's strange and perplexing study from the 1930s called Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), (Beitrage zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis)), henceforth referred to as the Contributions. The key themes that shape the later philosophy will be identified in the Contributions, but those themes will be explored in a way that draws on, and make connections with, a selection of other works. From this partial expedition, the general pattern of Heidegger's post-turn thinking, although not every aspect of it, will emerge.
The Contributions was written between 1936 and 1938. Intriguingly, Heidegger asked for the work not to appear in print until after the publication of all his lecture courses, and although his demand wasn't quite heeded by the editors of his collected works, the Contributions was not published in German until 1989 and not in English until 1999. To court a perhaps overly dramatic telling of Heideggerian history, if one puts a lot of weight on Heidegger's view of when theContributions should have been published, one might conceivably think of those later writings that, in terms of when they were produced, followed the Contributions as something like the training material needed to understand the earlier work. In any case, during his lifetime, Heidegger showed the Contributions to no more than a few close colleagues. The excitement with which the eventual publication of the text was greeted by Heidegger's readers was partly down to the fact that one of the chosen few granted a sneak preview was the influential interpreter of Heidegger, Otto Pöggeler, who then proceeded to give it some rather extraordinary advance publicity, describing it as the work in which Heidegger's genuine and complete thinking is captured.
Whether or not the hype surrounding the Contributions was justified remains a debated question among Heidegger scholars. What is clear, however, is that reading the work is occasionally a bewildering experience. Rather than a series of systematic hermeneutic spirals in the manner of Being and Time, the Contributions is organised as something like a musical fugue, that is, as a suite of overlapping developments of a single main theme. And while the structure of the Contributions is challenging enough, the language in which it is written can appear to be wilfully obscurantist.