martin heideggerOverview

Heidegger came to regard language as the ultimate reality, and so is much quoted (but perhaps not read: he is phenomenally difficult) by literary theorists. But though he might appear to be calling poetry the most authentic language, Heidegger in fact uses poetry for illustration of his own ideas.


Martin Heidegger was born in Baden-Württemburg in 1889, and studied initially for the priesthood. In 1909 he entered the University of Freiburg to read philosophy, receiving his lectureship in 1915. After military service, Heidegger returned to Freiburg as Husserl's Assistant, and in 1923 moved to Marburg, where he wrote Being and Time. He returned to Freiburg in 1929, became Rector in 1933, when he also implemented Nazi policies and made his notorious pro-Hitler radio broadcast. The following year Heidegger resigned as Rector, and took no further part in politics. His activities were not forgotten after the war, however, and the French occupying powers banned him from lecturing until 1950. But the following year Heidegger was granted Emeritus status, and indeed continued writing till 1961, when he published his two-volume Nietzsche. He died in Freiburg in 1976. {1}

Heidegger's star waned in the sixties, along with those of other Existentialists, but has risen again with current interest in hermeneutics, Post-structuralism and green politics. Until 1927, Heidegger studied the philosophy of Husserl, the hermeneutics of Dilthey and the anthropology of Scheler, but wrote modestly and conventionally. All this changed with Being and Time, which dealt with an unfamiliar subject in a ferociously difficult manner. Heidegger never completed this work: the third section of Part One, and the whole of Part Two, which was to have examined Kant, Descartes and Aristotle remain unwritten. Heidegger gradually widened his areas of interest, and backtracked from Being and Time, but the difficulties with this notorious publication were real and unavoidable. Heidegger was attempting to find a new way of regarding the world, and to forge a language to match. {2}

Being and Time

What is "being" asks Heidegger in Being and Time? His answer was to distinguish what it is for beings to be beings (Sein) from the existence of entities in general (Seindes). Seindes was "ontic" — i.e. makes reference, allows us to talk about things. It was simply a "place holder" and applied to relations, processes, events, etc. Sein was more fundamental: Heidegger was concerned with something he felt had been overlooked since the pre-Socratics. Descartes, for example, simply sidestepped the problem of ontology (philosophy of being) by dividing the world into three (God, the exterior world, and mental processes) and depicting the essentials of the exterior world in terms of time and the three spatial dimensions. This leads him in all kinds of difficulties, and evaded the question we must ask as to what being really is.

Heidegger was very idiosyncratic. He indulged in extended word play, and employed his own spelling, vocabulary and syntax. One famous coining was Dasein: literally "to be there". Dasein has no essence beyond what it can make itself be — i.e. no fixed nature or inveterate tendency. Man alone has Dasein, and he cannot escape it. Nor is there anything more fundamentally human, to which he can dedicate his life. The world is disclosed to us through and in Dasein: disclosed without mediation by concepts, propositions and inner mental states. Truth is Dasein's disclosedness. We are "thrown" into the world. Heidegger rejected the correspondence theory of truth, and regarded as a scandal the continual attempt by philosophy to centre knowledge on mental processes.

What is this Dasein? Start with things in the world, said Heidegger: everyday things like tools, materials, workspace. Are they not there for a purpose, to do something? They do not exist in isolation, waiting for the philosopher to extract the essence "tool", for instance, and then worry about enclosing and defining the term properly. Their complex relationships with other things (people and material objects) is what is most relevant about them, and this cuts across the usual boundaries of objective/subjective, animate/inanimate, or past/present/future. Time is not an abstract entity, something in which we are borne passively along, but an opportunity to do something. Or it is for us human beings who have Dasein (choice) and we therefore owe things in the world a duty of care (Sorge).

But if we continually define ourselves, we also change the way we regard the world. And that in turn redefines us. Nothing is innate, not even Dasein. Other things in the world (Seindes) may be relatively fixed but man is different. Above all he faces conscience, dread, awareness of death, all of which call man back to himself, to question his authenticity. Hence the importance of these in Heidegger's writings, which he viewed ontologically, not merely matters of psychological or sociological explanation.{3}

The Later Heidegger

Heidegger's interests shifted after Being and Time. He left some of the ontological questions, and retracted criticisms of Kant and others. His style became less academic, more impressionist. He concerned himself with art, truth and language. And while there was no ultimate reality for the early Heidegger, beyond what we consciously choose for ourselves, the later Heidegger came to reify language, i.e. make material what was conceptually abstract. Language became a quasi-divinity, the ultimate medium which explains the world to us. Social custom for Heidegger was originally custom: no more than that. But in attempting to get back to positions prior to Plato, Heidegger also dug down to find a more authentic base. Though Nietzsche had dismissed a need for grounding, Heidegger continually sought for something more primordial, turning to the German poets who had felt most keenly this loss of primary dwelling place. {4}

Metaphor came to play a central role. Philosophy traditionally regards non-metaphoric language to be primary, and Heidegger did not deny that reference (ontic explanation) could be useful within a conceptual scheme. But to escape that scheme (what would be called by Poststructuralists the "prison house of language") we needed to use language more reverently and receptively. Hence Heidegger's interest in the poets, Greek and German. {5}


Heidegger was originally destined for the priesthood, and a religious intensity characterizes all his writing. In his early work he regarded logic and mathematics as not so much resting on the psychological make-up of the human mind as taking on the medieval conception of a living faith. In 1919 Heidegger broke with Catholicism, so that his Being and Time can be seen as an attempt to demythologize theology. During the Nazi years Heidegger became an atheist, reading Nietzsche rather than Aristotle or Eckhart. Subsequently he turned to psychology and environmental issues, developing his own approach and terminology. But the earth that Heidegger sacralizes remained German. Heidegger was a nationalist, concerned with things German: landscape, peoples, their destiny, writers and philosophers. {6}

Heidegger was originally regarded as an Existentialist, with the common desire to shock people out of their purposeless, "inauthentic " existences. Being human is the point of our existence, the opportunities we are given of fulfilling possibilities. Nothing is preordained. But nor is it unconstrained: we are rooted in our times and its social preoccupations. But to live properly we need to discover our uniqueness, and act as we consciously desire to. Doing so may bring alienation. It will certainly bring anxiety as we understand that we ourselves make the reality of the world around us. And there will be an element of negation, since much lies in the future, which we cannot see at present. Moreover, we all die, and die on our own, each person turning towards his eventual nothingness. In anguish we realize that we are propelled into the world by chance, and are removed equally blindly. Beyond realizing our own potential there is no purpose to life.


Disillusioned with National Socialism after his 1933 doctoral address, Heidegger turned to Hölderlin and Sophocles, but did not publish his lectures "The Origin of the Work of Art" until much later. Poetic language has the unique capacity to produce and preserve novelty, and Heidegger therefore viewed language and the arts through poetry, reversing the usual standing of poetry to philosophy. Heidegger's interest was in the work of art itself, not the artist or the audience. Art means know-how: not technique as such, but the means of "bringing forth". And when, as at the present time, the gods have fled and there is no world to open up, great art was no longer possible. Heidegger indeed felt that great art was already on the wane when aesthetics appeared with Plato and Aristotle. {7}

But too much may be made of Heidegger's affiliations. Certainly his style becomes freer and less academic in later works where Heidegger discusses truth, art and language, even matters of science and technology. But if Heidegger is sometimes read as saying that poetry comes closest to allowing Being to come forth, Heidegger in fact deals largely with a particular strain of German poetry — Hölderlin, Mörike, Rilke and Trakl, and then so as to find illustrations of his own concepts. He does not follow his own advice, which is to listen to the poet and let thinking be disturbed by the poetry, but seems to overlook their pain, alienation and desperation in his desire to hear his message confirmed. {8} Most frustrating of all, Heidegger does not provide an aesthetics as such: he believes art has an unique relationship to truth, but that relationship is not spelt out. No doubt Heidegger felt that his philosophy went beyond aesthetics, but then the larger political arena is not without its problems: Heidegger came to despise Nazi propaganda, but never renounced his allegiance to National Socialism.


Martin Heidegger was very prolific: his writing is packed into some 70 dense volumes. The secondary literature is enormous and is fast expanding. {9} This, and the unsystematic nature of Heidegger's thought (not to mention the obscurity of style) makes assessment very difficult. Certainly Heidegger has been very influential and is much quoted, though generally by literary and media theorists without philosophical training. Profession philosophers are more divided in their opinions. A devoted band see him as an inspirational and truly original thinker. The great majority find his work muddled, opaque and fraudulent: "verbiage" is a term not infrequently used.

The central problem is reasoning. Whereas Husserl had looked into intentional consciousness to find certain categories that might serve as foundations to our knowledge of being, Heidegger widened the categories beyond conscious thought to include human activities in general, including mood and emotion. Can this be done? Heidegger claims that logos is a concept constructed by the post-Socratics to evade Dasein, but the terminology is beside the point. Logos is logic, the science of reasoning. If poetry can be written without logic, philosophy cannot, or at least not philosophy as generally understood.

Heidegger discovers unusual associations and coins new words, but the philosophic problems remain. Language is historically shaped, Heidegger claims, no doubt correctly, but his own shaping lacks even the sanction of social use. And for many philosophers Heidegger's shaping is a fraud, a play on words, a monstrous etymology that makes only partial sense in German and none at all in translation. {10} Heidegger has many striking turns of phrase, and Poststructuralists have naturally treated him as evidence in their claim that reality is made through novel use of language. But the claim is only an assertion, an undemonstrated assertion, and in fact Heidegger has very different objectives. Art may allow Being to come forth, but does not constitute Being as such.

Heidegger undertook interpretations of Kant and Plato, but these are anti-interpretations, constructed to oppose previous interpretations, to cast doubt rather than illumination on his forebears. Modernity doubtless faces extreme problems, but few think nothingness is the primary reality in a current "world-night" (Weltnacht). Death comes to us all, and in that sense nothingness is universal, but to equate this with reality is to play fast and loose with levels of meaning.

Heidegger was also provincial and almost nineteenth-century in his reading. He seemed unaware of the development of twentieth-century logic, and often proposed a conundrum that Russell and others had disposed of. Non-existing objects like the present King of France have a special mode of existence, said Heidegger. Human beings are aware of their eventual death, so that death is "a way of being which a human being takes on as soon as it is". Heidegger showed a rare willingness to confront the great commonplaces of life, but shifting them to new categories did not necessary make them more real or comprehensible. {11}

But this doubtless would be to miss what Heidegger was trying to say, perhaps would only emphasize what Heidegger contended: that logic has limits, and that our sense of wonder at the world is not to be captured in the abstract meditations of traditional philosophy. Who would deny this? The difficulties of aesthetics, which has to deal with what is not entirely a reasoning matter, are very well known. Contemporary theories of brain functioning, and the metaphor theories of Lakoff and Johnson also stress the non-rational basis of thought. But who supposed otherwise, that philosophy encompassed all we needed to feel, know and understand of the world? What philosophy did hope to provide, however, was a rational understanding, however limited, and that is something not easily found in Heidegger. Indeed he resists easy formulations: philosophy is thinking, hard thinking, and Heidegger is always more concerned to make us vividly aware of existence, and of the fundamental problems, than find intellectual solutions. Is this philosophy? Yes, says Heidegger, which explains his fascination for contemporary theorists. No, say traditional philosophers: Heidegger's concerns are best treated in art or theology.

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1. Chronology and Thomas Sheehan's Reading a Life: Heidegger and Hard Times both in Charles Guignon's (Ed.) The Cambridge Guide to Heidegger (1993).
2. Mary Warnock's Existentialism (1970), Reinhardt Grossman's Phenomenology and Existentialism: An Introduction (1984), and Guignon 1993.
3. Heidegger, Martin and Dasein entries in Ted Honderich's The Cambridge Companion to Philosophy (1995) and Timothy Clark's Martin Heidegger (2002).
4. Richard Rorty's Wittgenstein, Heidegger and the Reification of Language in Guignon 1993.
5. Graham White's Martin Heidegger in Jenny Teichman and Graham White's An Introduction to Modern European Philosophy (1995).
6. John Caputo's Demythologizing Heidegger (1993).
7. Heidegger, Martin entry in David Cooper's A Companion to Aesthetics (1992).
8. Caputo 1993.
9. Bibliography in Guignon 1993.
10. Chapter 3 of Warnock 1970.
11. Chapters 10 and 11 in Grossman 1984.

Internet Resources

1. Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry. Charles Griswold. Dec. 2003. Clear account and extensive bibliography.
2. Kant's Philosophical Development. Martin Schönfeld. Nov. 2003. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, with good references.
3. Heidegger and Purpose of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Daniel Fidel Ferrer. Jan. 2004.
. Heidegger's concerns with Hegel.
4. The Husserl Page. Bob Sandmeyer. Jan 2004. Introduction and extensive listings for Husserl: also references to phenomenology generally.
5. Friedrich Nietzsche. Oct. 2003. Straightforward introduction to Nietzsche's life, work and influence.
6. Bertrand Russell. A. D. Irvine. May 2003. General account, including his work on analytic philosophy.
7. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Garth Kemerling. Aug. 2002. Introduction: short article and selected listings.
8. Martin Heidegger. Jan. 2004. Wikipedia entry, with in-text links.
9. Existence and Being. Martin Heidegger. 1949.
. Excerpt from Walter Kaufman's Existence and Being from Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre.
10. Heidegger's Reading of Heraclitus. Brian A.Bard. 1993. Heidegger's developing metaphysics.
11. The Case of Martin Heidegger, Philosopher and Nazi. Alex Steiner. Apr. 2000. Summary of Heidegger's Nazi involvement.
12. Heidegger, France, Politics, the University. Pierre Joris.
. Heidegger's thought and the political dimension.
13. Heidegger and Nazism. John Haber. A more sympathetic treatment.