Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Martin Heidegger was a phenomenologist, and actively resisted the existentialist label that his contemporaries had desginated for him. His most famous work was Being and Time. This book was hailed as a work of great significance even though (and perhaps because of the fact that) few people, if any, could actually understand it. His life's work centered around the question: "what is being?"

Philosophically, Heidegger's major influences were the pre-socratics, Plato and Aristotle, as well as several 19th century philosophers, most notably Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.

Today, interest in Heidegger abounds. The conflicting nature of his philosophical thought, his religious life (he had joined a Jesuit noviciate in his early years), his actions as a pro-Hitler member of the Nazi party, and his later denounciation of Hitler have resulted in a seemingly endless stream of books about Heidegger.

Heidegger's influence, once limited to the German and Latin speaking countries (due perhaps to the difficulty of translating his work to English), has since expanded even to the English speaking world.

Reference:
Britannica.com. "Hedegger Martin", http://www.britannica.com

Martin Heidegger was born in the town of Messkirch of Baden on September 22, 1889. He went on to study theology (Roman Catholic) at the university of Freiburg where he studied under Edmund Husserl (the founder of phenomenology). He taught at Freiburg in 1915 and then at Marburg (1923 - 1928) where he was a professor of philosophy. He died in his home town on May 26, 1976.

Of primary influence in the work of Heidegger (aside from Husserl) was the pre-Socratic philosophers, Soren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. The primary question that Heidegger was interested is "What is it, to be?" What is the essence of humanity (though that is an awkward way of phrasing it) - what are we, as humans? We exist in a world that may or may not have been created but yet consists of useful things - cultural ideas and natural objects. Heidegger was intrigued by the fact that objects come from the past, are used in the present for some future goal and thus a fundamental relationship between the mode of being of objects and that of humanity and the structure of time. As an individual, we are always in danger of submersion in the world of objects, daily routine, and getting lost in a crowd. Through this dread of meaninglessness (see the influence of Nietzsche?) and that of death comes a confrontation and the sense of being and freedom is attained.

Among his great works two of them are paticularly cited - that of Being and Time (1927) which discusses much of the philosophy in the preceeding paragraph and An Introduction to Metaphysics (1953) which addresses the western concepts of being (compared to that of the ancient Greek concept of being). His believe that the modern society filled with technological marvels has deprived our lives of meaning (see Nietzsche again?) to the point of nihilism. He argues that we, as part of humanity, have forgotten our true purpose in life - to understand the sense of being that the early Greeks had and has since been lost.

One of Heidegger's very last works was The Question Concerning Technology and delves much further into the loss of humanity in the modern society - a "darkening of the world." This book was based on several lectures given in 1949 and dealt with issues of industrialization in post war Europe.

Heidegger was very careful to never blame technology nor praise it for it is not deserving of either. Technology is a system and framework. The danger that technology presents is in the transformation of humanity and entering in to all that we think and do.

While Heidegger died years before the explosion of personal computers he did have the opportunity to see one in 1957:

The language machine regulates and adjusts in advance the mode of our possible usage of language through mechanical energies and functions. The language machine is-and above all, is still becoming-one way in which modern technology controls the mode and the world of language as such. Meanwhile, the impress is still maintained that man is the master of the language machine. But the truth of the matter might well be that the language machine takes language into its management and thus masters the essence of the human being

(Heidegger, quoted in Heim, p. 8)

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.

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