Information icon.svg Voting in the 2023 RationalWiki Moderator Election is now closed. Results to come!

Martin Heidegger

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Heidegger notices something interesting on the ceiling.
Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it

Martin Heidegger[note 1] (1889–1976) was a German philosopher whose work is perhaps most readily associated with phenomenologyWikipedia 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.[1]

A short biography[edit]

Born in the rural, religious town of Meßkirch, Germany, Heidegger was greatly influenced by his upbringing and would hate technology, cities, and pop music for the rest of his life.[2] He went on to study theology at the University of Freiburg, but after two years in 1911 he swapped majors to philosophy. He started teaching philosophy in 1915 and married Elfride Petri in 1917.[1] Two inverse stopped clock moments happened in his life: his affair with Hannah ArendtWikipedia in the 1920s and his joining of the Nazi Party in 1933. While he stopped attending Nazi activities in 1934, he remained a member until the party's dismantling, never openly apologized for his involvement apart from calling it "the greatest stupidity of his life" ("die größte Dummheit seines Lebens"), and it still remains a highly controversial aspect of his life and philosophy. He died in 1976, and is buried in Meßkirch.

Sein und Zeit[edit]

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'sWikipedia existentialism, Gadamer'sWikipedia philosophical hermeneutics, and Derrida's notion of 'deconstruction'.
—The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy[1]

Heidegger's magnum opus Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) is a long, tedious book that we can't recommend reading (unless you have a brain the size of a planet, in which case, be our guest[citation NOT needed]) because of its various neologisms and, like, impossible prose. We'll summarise it for you (you're welcome). It was written in 1927 and is largely considered influential (apparently it's had impact on architecture? We're not totally sure, but we'll take Stanford's word for it[1]).

Nothing quite rivals the prose of his masterpiece Being and Time (1927) in terms of contortions and the sheer number of complex compound German words which the author coined, among them 'Seinsvergessenheit' (Forgetfulness of Being), 'Bodenständigkeit' (Rootedness-in-soil) and 'Wesensverfassung' (Essential Constitution).
—Alain de Botton[2]

It was especially controversial within circles that we would now describe as being part of the burgeoning analytical philosophy movement with Bertrand Russell writing of the book:

Highly eccentric in its terminology, his philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot. An interesting point in his speculations is the insistence that nothingness is something positive. As with much else in existentialism, this is a psychological observation made to pass for logic.[3]

This isn't to say that all analytic (that is to say, less-woo-prone) philosophers viewed the work negatively. Gilbert Ryle (an esteemed student of Wittgenstein) was perhaps the first admirer from that camp when he wrote a positive review for the prestigious journal Mind. It is worth reading for it's straight-to-the-point style of exegesis. Some of the most important and influential commentaries on Sein und Zeit written in the last 50 years have been by analytic philosophers. Hubert Dreyfus's commentary from 1991 Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time, Division I is regarded as an important landmark in kindling a more recent interest in the book by analytic philosophers and cognitive scientists.

Heidegger's Philosophy[edit]

Heidegger is sort of notorious for being difficult to read, as well as being very dense and very German. In an attempt to be a bit more palatable, there are four major points we will explore on this page.

One: we've forgotten to notice that we're alive[edit]

It's worth mentioning here that while we know it in theory (obviously you need to be alive to be reading this), Heidegger asserts that we aren't properly in touch with the 'Mystery of Being', the mystery of what Heidegger would term das Sein, or Being with a capital B. Much of his time is devoted to trying to wake us up to the strangeness of living on this tiny planet in a seemingly uninhabited, silent universe.[2]

Many of Heidegger's translators capitalise the word ‘Being’ (Sein) to mark what, in the Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Heidegger will later call the ontological difference, the crucial distinction between Being and beings (entities). The question of the meaning of Being is concerned with what it is that makes beings intelligible as beings, and whatever that factor (Being) is, it is seemingly not itself simply another being among beings. Unfortunately the capitalisation of ‘Being’ also has the disadvantage of suggesting that Being is, as Sheehan (2001) puts it, an ethereal metaphysical something that lies beyond entities, what he calls ‘Big Being’. But to think of Being in this way would be to commit the very mistake that the capitalisation is supposed to help us avoid. For while Being is always the Being of some entity, Being is not itself some kind of higher-order being waiting to be discovered. As long as we remain alert to this worry, we can follow the otherwise helpful path of capitalisation.
Some really smart guy
The question of Being aims… at ascertaining the a priori conditions not only for the possibility of the sciences which examine beings as beings of such and such a type, and, in doing so, already operate with an understanding of Being, but also for the possibility of those ontologies themselves which are prior to the ontical sciences and which provide their foundations. Basically, all ontology, no matter how rich and firmly compacted a system of categories it has at its disposal, remains blind and perverted from its ownmost aim, if it has not first adequately clarified the meaning of Being, and conceived this clarification as its fundamental task.
Sein und Zeit, page 11

For Heidegger, the modern world is an infernal machine dedicated to distracting us from the basic wondrous nature of Being. It constantly pulls towards practical tasks, it overwhelms us with information, it kills silence, it doesn't want to leave us alone – partly because realising the mystery of Being has its frightening dimensions. Doing so, we may be seized by fear ('Angst') as we become conscious that everything that had seemed rooted, necessary and oh-so-important may be contingent, senseless and without true purpose. We may ask why we have this job rather than that one, are in a relationship with one person rather than another, are alive when we might so easily be dead… Much of daily life is designed to keep these odd, unnerving but crucial questions at bay. What we're really running away from is a confrontation with – and even non-German speakers might respond to the sonorous depth of this key Heideggerian term – ‘das Nichts’ (The Nothing), which lies on the other side of Being. The Nothing is everywhere, it stalks us, it will swallow us up eventually, but – Heidegger insists – a life is only well lived when one has taken Nothingness and the brief nature of Being on board – as we might do when, for example, a gentle evening light gives way to darkness at the end of a warm summer's day in the foothills of the Bavarian alps.[2]

Two: we've forgotten that all being is connected[edit]

Enter woo filled theories misquoting Heidegger. In essence, Heidegger says that all being is connected by the fact that everything is existing. We are 'connected' with the clouds in the sky and the rocks five metres away because we all are in the state of existing.[citation needed]

Three: we forget to be free and live for ourselves[edit]

Self-explanatory. Basically, Heidegger realised that we spend a great deal of our time trying to please a world that, if we're being honest, probably doesn't really like us that much in the first place, or at least doesn't notice us. Heidegger, therefore, wants us to start living for ourselves and to stop living for the world.

Much about us isn't, of course, very free. We are – in Heidegger’s unusual formulation – 'thrown into the world' at the start of our lives: thrown into a particular and narrow social milieu, surrounded by rigid attitudes, archaic prejudices and practical necessities not of our own making.[2] Heidegger begs us to break away from das Gerede (the Chatter) in the world (things like news and social media and constant inflows of information) that fills our minds and distracts us, and begs us to break away from the masses (what he termed the they-self as opposed to ourself).

The philosopher wants to help us to overcome this ‘Thrownness’ (this ‘Geworfenheit’) by understanding its multiple features. We should aim to grasp our psychological, social and professional provincialism – and then rise above it to a more universal perspective. In so doing, we’ll make the classic Heideggerian journey away from ‘Uneigentlichkeit’ to ‘Eigentlichkeit’ (from Inauthenticity to Authenticity). We will, in essence, start to live for ourselves.
—The Book of Life[2]

Four: we treat others as objects[edit]

In essense, Heidegger asks us to treat other people as the ends, not the means. Heidegger notes that most of the time we treat others as equipment to help us meet certain ends, and asks that we think about the fact that the person over there is another person, who feels and loves and thinks and has goals like we do. They aren't just a tool, they're another being.

External links[edit]


  1. Yes, that Heidegger. The one who was a boozy beggar who could think you under the table


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Martin Heidegger The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Chapter 6: Curriculum: Philosophy. Martin Heidegger The Book of Life
  3. Russell, Bertrand. Wisdom of the West. Macdonald and Co. Ltd. p. 303. ISBN 1199591025.