Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was a German philosopher. He studied under Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), the philosopher of phenomenology, and became rector of Freiburg University in 1933 after the National Socialists took power. Heidegger joined the Nazi party, and gave an infamous enthusiastic speech praising the Fuehrer Adolph Hitler (182-1945), the Leader principle (Fuehrerprinzip), and the Nazi role in German education. Heidegger remained a Nazi party member to the bitter end in 1945. It appears, however, that he became somewhat disillusioned with the Nazis within a couple of years of his membership. He quietly resigned his rectorship. At the end of the war he was investigated by the Allied denazification group. He was forbidden to teach for some years. He never recanted being a Nazi.

For a long time I thought of Heidegger as a pompous nincompoop. I thought he had spent a long philosophic career ponderously and Germanically investigating a bewildering forest of abstract concepts. He had blazed a few peculiar trails -- only at the end to stumble on, rediscover, and proclaim as if it were a new discovery . . . Eastern spirituality. I thought that Heidegger had done this without realizing what he had done.

Instead, I am gradually becoming aware that, like an underground river carving a passage under the earth, Heidegger was a thinker who had a very important influence creating the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, of the late 20th century. Indeed -- to my surprise -- Heidegger has had a mysterious underground effect on my thought as well. His intitially odd concerns, his philosophic manner, some of his terminology ("thrownness", "Dasein", "The One"), and a few ringing passages in his works apparently strike a mysterious, deep, and answering chord in me.

Heidegger claimed he was not an existentialist. True. Not centrally. Despite his absolutely central and fanatic concern for Sein ("Being": the special sense in which he means this term will be unpacked later), he wasn't an existentialist.

Still, anyone vitally interested in existentialism (and I am) must study Heidegger. Why? Because in his main work, Sein und Zeit (1927, translated as Being and Time), Heidegger gave a phenomenological account of human life which is both interesting in itself and central to 20th century French existentialist thought. The French existentialists Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) were all deeply influenced by him. Their philosophies begin where Heidegger's analysis of human life -- incidental to his own philosophy -- leaves off.

Despite Heidegger's influence on and inspiration of French existentialist thinkers, we should take him at his word when he said in the late 1940s that he was not an existentialist. Why? Heidegger was not vitally concerned with the human condition. He was concerned with Sein ("Being"). (I follow most translators in using a capital "B" for this essential concept of Heidegger's.)

What does Heidegger mean by Being? By Being, Heidegger means the profoundly mysterious, almost indescribable unknown he thinks is at the heart of existence. Heidegger thinks Being is what causes individual entities -- beings, existents, things -- to be. Heidegger was, then, centrally not an existentialist but an ontologist (one concerned with exploring and clarifying Being).

Got that?

That is, Heidegger is not very interested in individual beings (die Seiendes: entities, things that exist), but (to repeat myself -- necessarily) with Being itself, the mystery that makes beings be. For Heidegger, Being -- whatever it is -- is infinitely more mysterious and important than forms of beings. Nor is Heidegger really concerned (as many ontologists and metaphysicians are) in the different ways of existing of kinds of beings. Again (I promise, for the last time), Heidegger's whole philosophy is interested almost solely in Being itself -- the mysterious quasi-unthinkable thing that makes beings exist.

Such an obsession may sound esoteric, almost facetious. What does it mean to say Being makes beings be? Isn't that rubbish? The four forces of nature might make beings be; they might generate the whole Universe. The Big Bang might be the cause of everything, or as American physicists John Archibald Wheeler (1911-    ) and Kip Thorne postulated, the cause of everything might be the pre-geometry of the Universe.

But Heidegger is dead serious. If the reader is willing to follow Heidegger, he will be led in strange directions and think strange and interesting thoughts. Like a strange poet -- like his favorite poet Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) -- Heidegger (in my opinion) has interesting and rewarding things to say, though a few of them are somewhat or largely mistaken. In short, if you can bear his ponderous obscurity, he is occasionally deeply stimulating.

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Books By and About Heidegger

Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday. 1958.

Barrett, an American, was editor of Partisan Review after World War II and, later, literary critic for Atlantic Monthly. He is a wonderfully lucid and sympathetic writer. With this book, an excellent guide to existentialist thought for the ordinary reader, he helped introduce existentialism to America. (Chapter Nine briefly outlines Heidegger's philosophy.)

-------. The Illusion of Technique. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978.

Some parts of this book were originally published in Commentary magazine.

Blackham, H. J. Six Existentialist Thinkers. London: Routledge & Keagan Paul, 1952.

Contains a 23-page chapter giving a brief overview of Heidegger's thought.

Collins, John and Selina, Howard. Heidegger for Beginners (since renamed Introducing Heidegger. Duxford, Cambridge(shire?), U.K.: Icon Books Ltd., 1998.

Like the similarly titled book by Lemay and Pitts listed below, this is an exposition of Heidegger's central ideas in illustrated format. Collins seems to be the sole author of the text, Selina the illustrator. Though the illustrations are entertaining (sometimes distracting), the text seems more important. The two illustrated books complement each other. This is the one, in my opinion, to read second.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time, translated by J. Macquarrie and E. S. Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962, and London: SCM Press, 1962. German original, Sein und Zeit, 1927.

Very difficult. This is Heidegger's most important work.

-------. Early Greek Thinking: The Dawn of Western Philosophy, translated by David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

-------. What is Called Thinking?, translated by J. Glenn Gray. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

"Heidegger", Chapter 9 (pp. 285-331) in Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: Vol. V, The Twentieth Century to Wittgenstein and Sartre. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc. Second Edition (paper), Revised, 1975.

Jones, a professor at Caltech sympathetic to Husserl, analyzes Heidegger's philosophy giving weight to Heidegger's beginnings as a phenomenologist.

"Heidegger's Castle", Chapter 17 (pp. 339-369) in Kaufmann, Walter. From Shakespeare to Existentialism. New York: Beacon Press, 1959. The pagination is in the Anchor Press softcover edition, 1960.

The late Princeton professor, as always lucid and illuminating, and believing that Heidegger is a serious philosopher to reckon with, analyzes his philosophy briefly and critically. Kaufmann, though trying hard to be fair, is essentially unsympathetic to Heidegger's point of view .

Lemay, Eric., and Pitts, Jennifer A. Heidegger for Beginners. New York and London: Writers and Readers, 1994.

Prolifically but occasionally vacuously illustrated by Paul Gordon, this is an intellectual illustrated book (like a comic book) in which Heidegger's philosophy is given a glancing demi-exposition. A good place to start.

Macquarrie, John. Existentialism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1972.

In a popular exposition of existentialism, Macquarrie, a Scottish theologian and co-translator of Sein und Zeit, deals with Heidegger.

Mehta, J. L. The Philosophy of Martin Heidegger. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Steiner, George. Heidegger. Glasgow: Fontana Books/William Collins Sons, 1978.

Steiner goes into the events of Heidegger's background, including his Nazi period as rector of Freiburg university. He gives the a philosophy a fairly clear exposition as well as a shrewd analysis. Though difficult in the later stretches this is probably the best account of Heidegger in English for the interested non-specialist.

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