Martin Heidegger

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Heidegger, Martin (26 September 1889 - 26 May 1976)

“Many people who learn that Heidegger lied over and over again about his Nazism, and that he did his best to ignore the murder of the European Jews, conclude that his writings can be neglected,” wrote Richard Rorty. Despite his being a resentful, ungenerous, disloyal, and deceitful man, Heidegger deserves our attention, adds Rorty, because “he somehow managed to write books that are as powerful and as original as Spinoza’s or Hegel’s. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jürgen Habermas all cut their teeth on those books. You cannot read most of the important philosophers of recent times without taking Heidegger’s thought into account.”

Heidegger, one of the founders of 20th-century existentialism (although he rejected the title), was a student of Husserl, succeeding him as a professor of philosophy at Freiburg, Germany. In his Being and Time (1927), Heidegger dealt with the concepts of “care,” “mood,” and the individual’s relationship to death. He related the authenticity of being as well as the anguish of modern society to the individual’s confrontation with his own temporality. In his confrontation with the world, Heidegger taught that man finds ties binding him to objects, companions, and life as well as finds his essential possibilities and his relationship to death. Strongly influenced by Kierkegaard, Dilthey, and Nietzsche, he in turn influenced the work of Sartre. Although Heidegger joined the Nazi party in Germany, he later said he had not been active in the party nor a believer in its philosophy or cultural policy. He did not, however, leave the party and once orated that “the Führer himself and he alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law.” Somehow, he felt that the National Socialist revolution of the early 1930s, by using pre-Socratic philosophers’ thoughts and the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, could be given a proper direction. Even after the Nazis showed no interest in his view of the direction Germany should take, he continued to support them, despite his denial. Further, he helped in the banning of prominent Jews—including his own teacher and patron, Edmund Husserl—from Germany University faculties. Also, he blocked the promotion of a former student by writing a confidential memo which accused him of having become “closely tied to the Jew Fränkel, formerly employed at Göttingen, and now dismissed from this university.”

Scholars have become intrigued, as shown by Elzbieta Ettinger’s Hannah Arendt—Martin Heidegger (1995), at how the Jewish Arendt had a four-year sexual relationship with Heidegger in 1924 when she was a student, and how he was able to sustain her emotional involvement until her death over five decades after they had met. If it was passion which led the married Catholic thirty-five-year-old Professor Heidegger to initiate the affair with a student, the fact that it was he, not she, who broke off the relationship is interesting inasmuch as he followed up with a self-centered and manipulative desire to keep in touch. Arendt believed his problem was his wife, Elfride. By the early 1930s, Arendt was aware that Heidegger was a Nazi. In 1933, as rector of the University of Freiburg, he was known to have blocked the promotions of Karl Jaspers, Eduard Baumgarten, and Max Mueller, all suspected of being anti-Nazi. When Jaspers’s wife, a Jew, had cried at newspaper reports of anti-Semitism, Heidegger told Jaspers that “it makes one feel better to cry sometimes.” Although some describe Heidegger as being an atheist, Heidegger studied Catholic theology thoroughly, and his search for Being is close to a kind of belief in God.

Bernhard Welte, a Catholic priest and Professor of Christian Philosophy of Religion at the University of Freiburg, delivered Heidegger’s funeral speech. Heidegger’s thought, he remarked, “has shaken the world and the century.” He added that Heidegger’s path was that of “perhaps the greatest seeker of this century.” Richard Rorty, in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, cites Heidegger—along with Hegel, Marx, Frege, Freud, and Wittgenstein—in a list of “individual men of genius who think of something new” and called him “one of the three most important philosophers of our century” (the others being Dewey and Wittgenstein).

Disagreeing, Paul Edwards in “Heidegger’s Quest for Being” (Journal of Philosophy 64:437—470) states that what is more likely is “that Heidegger will continue to fascinate those hungry for mysticism of the anaemic and purely verbal variety, the ‘glossogonous metaphysics’ of which his philosophy is such an outstanding example. The odds are that people afflicted in this way will exist for a long time; and if this is so, Heidegger will indeed be read and admired in future centuries. More sober and rational persons will continue to regard the whole Heidegger phenomenon as a grotesque aberration of the human mind.” Edwards was amused that in a programmatic essay Sartre counted Heidegger as an atheist. “He did indeed reject Christian and Jewish theism,” Edwards wrote in God and the Philosophers, “but he believed in an ultimate reality called ‘Being,’ which has striking similarities to the traditional deity. Being is in everything and is the source of everything. It is always referred to as ‘the Holy’ and as something ‘transcendent’ that cannot be adequately described in language taken from ordinary experience. It can be reached by various mystical techniques, especially one that Heidegger calls Gelassenheit and that has been facetiously described as a form of ‘creative waiting.’ It should be noted that Heidegger felt an affinity with medieval mystics, whom he frequently quoted with approval, and that he was unequivocally opposed to any form of naturalism.”

(See entry for Joseph Warren Beach.)

{CE; ER; HNS2; Richard Rorty, The New York Times Book Review, 3 May 1998; TYD}