It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to write something definitive and encyclopediac on the life, works and meaning of Martin Heidegger. Issues of his life (foremost his involvement with the Nazi Party) are still a matter of historical debate and the meaning of his philosophy (if it can even be considred as a unified whole) will still be being puzzled over in a hundred years.
And if there was someone who could give a definitve view of Heidegger, it wouldn't be me. My knowledge of Heidegger is confined to reading the Basic Writings twice, and from reading the many brief descriptions and critiques of his thoughts that occur in any good intellectual history of the 20th century. However, this is still more reading of Heidegger than most people have, and still enough to take up one of the basic questions in Heidegger: How revolutionary is his belief in "Being"?
Heidegger claims that all of Western Philosophy since Plato had been lost in metaphysics, a categorical search into the different modes of Being, that managed to avoid and forget the question of what Being itself is. Heidegger claimed to be returning to an investigation of this Being. He claimed this as a revolutionary advance. What exactly, did this revolution mean? Was Heidegger attempting to deconstruct the ways that metaphysics distracted people from a cultural or psychological understanding of "Being"? In many places, Heidegger does engage in such critiques, but they seem to be byproducts of his original intent. He seems to love "Being" for its own sake, and his writing seems to be almost that of a man who has mystically discovered something that is invisible to others.
For example, take this passage, from Heidegger's The Orgin of the Work of Art. I choose this passage not so much for its specific meaning as for the mystical poetical sound of the words:
And yet-beyond beings, not away from them but before them, there is still something else that happens. In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a lighting. Thought of in reference to beings, this lighting is more in beings than are beings. This open center is therefore not surrounded by beings; rather, the lighting encircles all that is, as does the nothing, which we scarcely know.
Has Heidegger discovered a transcendent principle
? Is the "Being" of Heidegger merely what in other times would be called "God", "Spirit", "Subject", "Absolute", "Idea" or many other names? Did Heidegger merely rename it to make his exploration original, freeing his readers of the historical ideas attached to these things? Why does Heidegger, who was well educated as well as being a former monk, not explore the idea of Spirit and God presented by Christianity
, along with the ideas of secular philosophy? Why is the "Being" that Heidegger thought of so wildy important?
This is the question for those who wish to start to understand Heidegger, or perhaps throw his books against the wall and instead find their wisdom elsewhere. My own personal feeling is that Heidegger did indeed have a mystical bent to him, and that he had a mystical experience that he wished to wrap up in the idea of "Being". "Being" is actually little more than a grammatical convenience, and one that doesn't even exist in English or Chinese the way it does in German. Mystics throughout history have for various reasons wrapped up their experiences of the transcendent or ineffable in terms of everything from The Virgin Mary to swordmanship to psychedelic drugs. If Heidegger wishes to wrap it up in an irregular verb, then that is just as well. The next question is how Heidegger's various other philosophical and cultural interests, as well as his politics and slightly questionable personal conduct are woven together with this central mystical experience. And another question, of course, is how much the person who wants to understand either Western thought or mystical experiences wishes to follow Heidegger's twisting path.