Heidegger is one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century and has been an influence in my life since my student days. The principal entry points to Heidegger for me were Sartre, Rahner and Tillich. I provide a brief overview of his work and thinking, with reference to his Nazi membership and the controversy this has caused. I refer briefly to the various commentaries and background writings on Heidegger and expect the serious reader to research them if required.
Being and Time in the Macqarrie translation is still the standard starting point for Heidegger. (I will use the Stambaugh translation when I return to Heidegger in the future).
The standard commentaries on Heidegger in English are by Dreyfus, Gorner, Large, Blitz, Davis, Wrathall, Polt. The Cambridge Companion provides a more contemporary review. Kiesel provides historical background in the Genesis of Being and Time).
I also read The Introduction to Metaphysics plus Yale commentary (Polt), perused Key Concepts by Davis, and overview of Wrathall. Background on the Heidegger Nazi controversy is given in The Heidegger Case, edited by Rockmore and Margolis. The Heidegger-Jaspers Correspondence is illuminating. Ettinger provides a brief overview of the relationship between Heidegger and Arendt in her Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger.
The two most relevant commentaries for me were:
Heidegger confronts his readers with a serious challenge to think along with him in ways completely different from so much we have grown accustomed to in Western thinking. For some, he is completely baffling and appears to be talking “nonsense”. For others, like me, he points a way to thinking about life in a robust and critical way that seems to open up so many new possibilities. Like Rahner, he is for me above all a teacher.
Heidegger found himself in Germany at the opening of the twentieth century, and lived through the Third Reich. He joined the Nazi Party and followed the rules of discrimination (against Jews and Communists) imposed on Germany at the time by the Nazis. He was forbidden to teach following World War II, having been condemned as a Nazi supporter (see Rockmore). He does not appear to have ever acknowledged any guilt for the atrocities committed by the Nazis (especially the Holocaust) and many consider this to be a major issue in assessing Heidegger as a man, and as a thinker. Sheehan is unambiguous on this matter: Heidegger was a Nazi and was rightfully condemned for this, but he was also an original thinker of very high caliber, and should be read. Both Jaspers and Arendt seemed to share this view.
Karl Jaspers was a very influential thinker in Germany in the 1930s when Hitler came to power. He greatly admired Heidegger’s thinking, and both were very close in these early days. Hannah Arendt was a very bright student of Heidegger’s who also happened to be a German of Jewish descent. She and Heidegger (who was married) had a complex love affair which continued after she left Freiburg to study with Jaspers in Heidelberg. The relationships between these remarkable people has been widely recorded. It would seem that Arendt always loved Heidegger, despite his Nazi party loyalty, and supported him all of her life. Jaspers, (whose wife was also a German of Jewish descent, for which he was fired from his university), never forgave Heidegger for his complicity in the Nazi system, but continued to respect his thinking and argued for his continued financial support for research purposes, while recommending that he be forbidden to teach.
Heidegger remains for me a very real paradox. He demands respect because of his achievement, and his influence continues because of this. On the other hand, while we can admire Jaspers (he lost his teaching position because of his wife and opposed the Nazis as much as he could), there is much to lament about Heidegger’s conduct between 1933 and 1945. It is hard to see how he could ever have achieved any form of “authenticity” in his life.
Perhaps his influence has been promoted by Sartre, Camus and Merleau-Ponty in France, and by Arendt in the US. Certainly, for the generation of “boomers” in Europe and North America emerging from the chaos of war, slaughter, genocide and nuclear detonations, Heidegger’s key concepts resonated widely, and continue to do so.
“Martin Heidegger is interested in the problem of being rather than merely in the problem of human existence. But the being of man provides a way of access to the problem of being in general, for man, as Heidegger expresses it, it is like a clearing in being, the locus where being is lit up and becomes unconcealed – and for Heidegger “unconcealedness” is equivalent to truth, in the primordial sense of aletheia.[Greek for truth]. Man has a way into the truth of being because he “exists”. A rock or a river does not exist; their kind of being is called by Heidegger “presence–at–hand.” The peculiarity of “existence”, as the term is used here, is that what exists not only has being but has some understanding of being; its being is disclosed to it in its very mode of being. Heidegger believed that by philosophic analysis of the understanding of being which goes along with existence, that is to say, by making unconcealed the basic structures or existentialia of existence, light may be thrown on the question of being itself.
In Heidegger’s analysis, human existence is exhibited as care, and this has a threefold structure. Firstly, it is constituted by possibility. Man’s being gets projected ahead of itself. The entities which are encountered are transformed from being merely “present–at–hand” to being “ready–to–hand” to man in their serviceability, and out of them man constructs an instrumental world which is articulated on the basis of his concerns. Secondly, care is constituted by facticity. Man is not pure possibility but factical possibility, that is to say, the possibilities open to him at any time are conditioned and limited by many circumstances which he has never chosen – his historical situation, his race, his natural endowments, and the like. Heidegger speaks of man’s “thrownness”; man is thrown into a world to exist there in his situation, but his whence and his whither are concealed from him. Man’s situation as a finite entity thrown into a world where he must project his possibilities is not disclosed to him by theoretical reasoning but rather in his affective states, or moods, of which the basic one is anxiety. The third constitutive factor in care is fallenness. Man flees from the disclosure of anxiety to lose himself in absorption with his instrumental world, or to bury himself in the anonymous impersonal existence of the mass, where no one is responsible. When this happens, man has fallen away from his authentic possibility into an inauthentic existence of irresponsibility and illusory security. In the mode of inauthenticity, existence is scattered and fragmentary.
The way to authenticity lies through hearing conscience, understood as the summons to take upon us our finitude and guilt. Care is understood in terms of temporality–a finite temporality which reaches its end with death. In authentic existence, death ceases to be just something that happens to us, breaking in to shatter our existence. Death is itself taken up into possibility, and an authentic existence is projected upon death as its capital potentiality for being. All possibilities are evaluated in the light of death as the capital possibility, and when one lives in the anticipation of death, one lives with the resoluteness which brings unity and wholeness to the scattered self. Eternity does not come into this picture, for wholeness is attainable within man’s finite temporality itself, and he lays hold on each unique unrepeatable possibility in the light of the master possibility of death. When man ceases to run away from the disclosure of anxiety that he is thrown into death, and when he resolutely anticipates death as his supreme possibility, he reaches an unshakeable joy and equanimity.
Is this, then, a kind of nihilism in which man simply accepts the nothingness of his being and of all his possibilities? At first glance, this might seem to be the case, if it were not that death plays so positive a part in Heidegger’s analysis. Only by living through the nothingness of death in anticipation does one attain an authentic existence. We must look more closely at what Heidegger means by “nothing”. We have already noted Carnap’s criticism that Heidegger talks of “nothing” as if it were some entity or other. Heidegger is well aware of this danger. “The idea of “logic” itself comes undone in the whirlpool of a more primordial enquiry.” The “nothing” about which he is talking is not an abstract idea but the “nothing” which is experienced in that mood of anxiety or malaise when the entire world of entities sinks into an undifferentiated meaninglessness. This “nothing” is decidedly not an entity, since it encounters us precisely in the absence of all entities. “This wholly other to all entities is the non-entity. But this nothing essentiates as being.” For being itself is not another entity; we cannot say that being is, nor can we make it an object as if it were an entity among other entities. Only the confrontation with nothing can awaken in us the wonder about being, which expresses itself in the question of Leibniz: “why are there entities at all, and not just nothing?” This is no ordinary question, and as Heidegger interprets it, it points us away from entities to being. It is an inescapable question for man, who is confronted with the nothing in his own being. “Each of us is grazed at least once, perhaps more than once, by the hidden power of this question.”
But Heidegger now approaches the question of being more directly. He does not approach it through entities, not even through man, the existent entity, but tells us that we need another kind of thinking, a thinking which is submissive to being itself. Because of his essential relation to the truth of being, man is the guardian of being, he responds to the call of being, while being graciously opens itself to him. Here we seem to have passed into a mystical region of thought, reminiscent perhaps of Meister Eckhart and the Zen Buddhists. In any case the religious dimensions of his philosophy have become apparent.” Pages 353–355: Twentieth Century Religious Thought, John Macquarrie, 1963.
This is a basic scan of the period. I found it to be well written and quite comprehensive, despite the obvious complexity of the issues being addressed. I supplemented the reading with YouTube videos on Weimar Republic, Rise Of Hitler, etc., most of which is very good. Having the videos from the time is also very instructive and complements the text of the book very well. This background exploration does little to help me understand Heidegger. Hitler’s racial assumptions of Aryan Supremacy as a basis for the elimination of all other “races” (Jews, Romani, Slavs, etc) strikes me as quite absurd, despite the academic quackery of theories of race, eugenics, etc which lacked any scientific rigour. I cannot understand how Heidegger could have chosen to join the Party, so I tend to join Sheehan in voicing my disappointment in his personal integrity, while admiring his thought.
This is a very good overview of the various efforts to understand what actually happened in the Holocaust. It is written very much from the perspective of the Holocaust as a Jewish issue, and I am not able to comment adequately on this without further serious study. Arendt’s Eichmann in Jesrusalem is required reading.
Heidegger remains a paradox: a great thinker, but not a great model of the authenticity we all seek. Nevertheless, I find his thinking so powerful that I continue to turn to him and his writings, and he continues to dominate my poetic vision. In a sense he is similar to Wagner and Nietzsche – extraordinary creators of music and thought, but not ideals as persons. I leave it there for now, but will return to Heidegger’s later work at a future date. For now, I refer everyone to Sheehan.