German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) has become widely regarded as the most original 20th century philosopher. Recent interpretations of his philosophy closely associate him with existentialism (despite his repudiation of such interpretations) and, controversially, with National Socialist (Nazi) politics.
Martin Heidegger was born in Messkirch, a small town in Baden in southwest Germany, on Sept. 26, 1889. His father was a verger in the local Catholic church, and the boy received a pious upbringing. After graduation from the local gymnasium, he entered the Jesuit novitiate; later, he studied Catholic theology at the University of Freiburg. The markedly philosophical cast of medieval theology helped attract Heidegger to philosophy, and he finished his education in that subject. In 1914 he presented a doctoral thesis entitled "The Theory of Judgment in Psychologism," which showed the strong influence of Edmund Husserl's writings. A year later he was admitted to the faculty of Freiburg as a lecturer. His habilitation thesis was on a work of medieval logic, then thought to be by John Duns Scotus.
In 1916 Husserl was called to Freiburg as professor of philosophy, and when Heidegger returned from brief military service in World War I (spent in part at a meteorological station), he sought out the teacher whose works he had admired. In the following years Heidegger became an academic assistant for Husserl and edited the latter's manuscripts for The Phenomenology of Internal Time-consciousness.
Heidegger was called to a professorship in Marburg in 1923. Among his colleagues there were Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich, theologians whose own work was profoundly shaped by discussions with Heidegger and by the publication in 1927 of his major work, Being and Time. In the autumn of 1928 Heidegger was recalled to Freiburg to take Husserl's chair, singled out by Husserl as his only qualified successor. Though Heidegger had been, in effect, designated as the leader of the developing phenomenological movement, it soon became clear that his own philosophical aims differed radically from those of Husserl.
In Being and Time Heidegger had made it plain that he was fundamentally interested in one great question, about the meaning of Being. Later, in the Introduction to Metaphysics (1935) he accepted G.W. von Leibniz's formulation: "Why should there be any being at all and not rather nothing?" But the bulk of Being and Time has to do with a fundamental analysis of human existence. Heidegger regarded this as only a preparation for ontology, arguing that it is characteristic of the human being (Dasein) to raise the question of Being (Sein). The promised second half of Being and Time, which was to provide the new ontology, did not appear.
His analysis introduced a number of concepts that later received wide currency in existential philosophy: for example, "human finitude," "nothingness" "being-in-the-world," "being-unto-death," and "authenticity." When these ideas were picked up and developed by French philosophers during and after World War II, Heidegger explicitly repudiated the designation of his views as existentialist in a Letter on Humanism (1949). Nevertheless, his reputation and considerable influence stem from Being and Time "a work that, though almost unreadable, was immediately felt to be of prime importance."
After 1930, Heidegger turned to a more historical approach, presenting man's understanding of the "nature of being" in different epochs (especially in Ancient Greece) leading up to the 20th century, which he found to be deeply flawed in large part because it was technologically overboard. But his works did not become easier to understand because of the historical turn. His articles and short books were Delphic in their obscurity and mystical in tone. (Contemporary mainstream British and American academic philosophers who read Heidegger "tend to divide into two camps: those who believe his writings are largely gibberish and those who believe they are entirely gibberish.") Heidegger laments man's forgetfulness of Being. But it seems that Being now hides itself from man. "We come too late for the gods and too early for Being." The true calling of the philosopher, shared only with the poet, is to "watch for Being" and, in rare moments, "to name the Holy" or "speak Being."
Beginning in the 1920's Heidegger lived in a primitive ski hut high on an isolated mountain in the Black Forest. He did not know how to drive a car. Dressing in the Swabian peasant costume of his family, he and his wife lived a simple, ascetic life close to nature, from which, with the help of his favorite poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, Heidegger attempted to learn the secret of Being.
Shortly after the electoral triumph of the National Socialist party in 1933, Heidegger began an association with the Nazis which is the subject of much contemporary controversy. The leaders of the Third Reich were determined to enforce conformity on all the institutions of Germany and immediately began to pressure the universities. The rector at Freiburg resigned, and in April 1933, shortly after Hitler was elected Chancellor, Heidegger was unanimously elected rector by the teaching faculty. Heidegger later claimed that the faculty "hoped that my reputation as a professor would help to preserve the faculty from political enslavement." But in his inaugural address and particularly in addresses to students in July and November of that year, Heidegger went far beyond what would have been required of any rector under the regime. In these speeches he rejected the concept of academic freedom as "implying uncommittedness in thought and act," and he urged students to make an "identification with the New Order." In his declaration to students on Nov. 3, 1933, Heidegger said, "Doctrine and 'ideas' shall no longer govern your existence. The Führer himself, and only he, is the current and future reality of Germany, and his word is your law." Despite the strength of these statements, Heidegger left his position as rector within a year, but he continued to see a unique destiny for German culture. Philosophy, he said, can be written only in Greek or German, and Germany to him was still entrusted with the fate of European culture, a nation caught in great pincers between two powers, Russia and America, which share "the same dreary technological frenzy, the same unrestricted organization of the average man."
Until the late 1980's most Heideggerians viewed his encounters with Nazism as an error of enthusiasm or philosophical misunderstanding or both, and it was not much of an issue. But in 1987 Victor Faríias published Heidegger and Nazism (in French); the book "dropped like a bomb on the quiet chapel where Heidegger's disciples were gathered, and blew the place to bits." The story Heidegger had offered after the war that he supported the Nazis briefly and only to protect the university was overwhelmed by evidence of Heidegger's deep and long-lasting commitment to National Socialism, his blatant anti-Semitism, and his blackballing of colleagues for holding pacifist convictions, associating with Jews, or being "unfavorably disposed" toward the Nazi regime.
Heidegger was by no means the only German philosopher who signed up, but he was the most important, by far, and the only one who "saw himself as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the West." After the war, a "de-Nazification" committee of Heidegger's peers at the university, many of them favorably disposed to him, were unconvinced by his claims of "intellectual resistance" to Nazism and removed him from his job, denying him emeritus status, and pensioning him off. Heidegger himself finally admitted that his lectures after he left the rectorship were anything but tough attacks on Nazism. Otherwise, after the war, he maintained "an almost hermetic silence" about the Holocaust. For some, this was "Heidegger's crime:" he was a thinker and writer who believed such people should be "the guardian of the memory of forgetting," but who "lent to extermination not his hand and not even his thought but his silence and nonthought … he 'forgot' the extermination."
Heidegger spent his last 20 years writing, publishing, and guest-lecturing at various places. He died in Freiburg in 1976.
Further Reading on Martin Heidegger
Heidegger is the subject of much scholarship. Collections of essays on his work include Charles Guignon (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger (1993); Hubert L. Dreyfus and Harrison Hall (eds.), Heidegger: A Critical Reader (1992); and Michael Murray (ed.), Heidegger and Modern Philosophy (1978); On Heidegger's politics, see Julian Young, Heidegger, Philosophy, Nazism (1997); James F. Ward, Heidegger's Political Thinking (1995); Hugo Ott, Martin Heidegger A Political Life (1993); Hans Sluga, Heidegger's Crisis, Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany (1993), Richard Wolin, The Heidegger Controversy (1993); Victor Faríias, Heidegger and Nazism (1987); For more listings, articles, and book reviews, see the Heidegger page at //www.webcom.com/~paf/ereignis.html .