Martin Heidegger

Who was Martin Heidegger?

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was the phenomenological "ontologist" who first united existentialism with phenomenology, but later revealed that his true concern was ontology. He is considered one of the titans of Western philosophy and had more direct enduring influence over twentieth century continental philosophy than any other thinker.

Heidegger wrote extensively on the history of philosophy, developing his own phenomenological analyses. His main books include his doctoral dissertation The Doctrine of Judgment in Psychologism (1914), his habilitation (in Europe, Ph.D.s write two dissertations, one to get a degree as a scholar and the second to qualify them to teach on a university level) The Doctrine of Categories and Signification in Duns Scotus (1914), his most famous Being and Time (1927), and then Introduction to Metaphysics (1953), What Is Called Thinking (1954), What Is Philosophy? (1956), On the Way to Language (1959), Nietzsche I and II (1961), and Phenomenology and Theology (1970). Transcripts of Heidegger's lectures were partly published in 1975 (the complete works would constitute over 100 volumes). Heidegger is also known for articles on art and poetry, as well as his essay The Question Concerning Technology.

What did Martin Heidegger mean by "ontology?"

The term "ontology" refers to the study of being in a general sense that is relevant to all thinkers and theorists. Empiricists, for example, have ontologies in that there are some entities that they believe exist. According to Heidegger, ontology, as the first and last subject of philosophy, is the study of Being, with a capital "B." Being is existence itself, including everything that exists, but in particular human consciousness for which Being is first and foremost the condition of its own being.

For readers who find this confusing, excellent relaxation can be found in Gunter Grass' 1963 novel, Dog Years, which contains a parody of Heidegger's terminology in the literal description of a canine's wanderings during the Nazi era. For the more scholarly inclined, there is Theodor Adorno's The Jargon of Authenticity (1973).

How does Martin Heidegger embarrass the Heideggerians?

Heidegger's political beliefs and behavior when the Nazis came to power have generated much controversy, based on the following documented facts.

Martin Heidegger was a phenomenological ontologist who united existentialism with phenomenology (AP).

Martin Heidegger was a phenomenological ontologist who united existentialism with phenomenology (AP).

Did Martin Heidegger owe a philosophical debt to Immanuel Kant?

Very much so, particularly in his phenomenological analysis of space and time. Like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Heidegger thought that both space and time were "in" the subjects as necessary pre-conditions for experience. But unlike Kant, Heidegger did not believe that space and time were necessary categories in the mind; rather, they were ontological structures of human existence that became evident in the way Dasein concretely existed.

Heidegger paid dues as a member of the NSDAP, or Nazi Party, from 1933 to 1945. In his inaugural address in May 1933 as rector of Freiburg University, three months after Hitler came to power, he called for the students and faculty to serve the new regime, referring to "the march our people has begun into its future history" and to "the power to preserve, in the deepest way, the strengths which are rooted in soil and blood." In June 1933, he told the Heidelberg Student Association that the university "must be integrated into the Volksgemeinshaft (people's community) and be joined together with the state." In August 1933, he established the rule that the rector would no longer be elected by the faculty but appointed by the Nazi minister of education, a position to which he was himself appointed in October 1933. In November 1933, he applied the Nazi laws on racial cleansing to the students at Freiberg, awarding financial aid to Aryan students, but not to Jews or Marxists.

Heidegger also secretly denounced to the Nazi government a number of Jewish or politically suspect professors at Freiburg, such as Hermann Staudinger, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1953, and Eduard Baumgarten, the pragmatist philosopher who was teaching at Göttingen. Max Müller, the Catholic intellectual, was fired by Heidegger as student leader and prevented from getting a lectureship. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Heidegger's former teacher, was denied use of the University Library at Freiburg because he was a Jew even though he had converted to Lutheranism. (Heidegger and Husserl's intellectual relationship is examined in the film The Ister, directed by David Barrison and Daniel Ross in 2004.)

Although Heidegger resigned as rector in 1934, the next year he referred to the "inner truth and greatness of National Socialism." At least until 1960, Heidegger maintained a friendly acquaintance with Eugen Fisher, the head of the Institute of Racial Hygiene in Berlin that employed the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele as a researcher. Heidegger never repudiated Nazism after World War II. In his lecture on technology in 1949, he referred to the mechanism of agriculture, saying: "Agriculture is now a motorized food-industry—in essence, the same as the manufacturing of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same as the blockade and starvation of the countryside, the same as the production of the hydrogen bombs."

Many were offended by this comparison by Heidegger of murdered Jews to agricultural products. In a last interview before his death, Heidegger described the main task of thought as achieving a satisfactory relationship to technology. He said that National Socialism had that goal but that "those people were far too limited in their thinking to acquire an explicit relationship to what is really happening today and has been underway for three centuries." In other words, his greatest disappointment with the Nazis was their failure in addressing the problem of technology!

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